Thanks to Salem sea captains, Gilded Age millionaires, curators on horseback and missionaries gone native, North American museums now possess the greatest collections of Chinese art outside of East Asia itself. How did it happen? The China Collectors is the first full account of a century-long treasure hunt in China from the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion to Mao Zedong's 1949 ascent.
The principal gatherers are mostly little known and defy invention. They included "foreign devils" who braved desert sandstorms, bandits and local warlords in acquiring significant works. Adventurous curators like Langdon Warner, a forebear of Indiana Jones, argued that the caves of Dunhuang were already threatened by vandals, thereby justifying the removal of frescoes and sculptures. Other Americans include George Kates, an alumnus of Harvard, Oxford and Hollywood, who fell in love with Ming furniture. The Chinese were divided between dealers who profited from the artworks' removal, and scholars who sought to protect their country's patrimony. Duanfang, the greatest Chinese collector of his era, was beheaded in a coup and his splendid bronzes now adorn major museums. Others in this rich tapestry include Charles Lang Freer, an enlightened Detroit entrepreneur, two generations of Rockefellers, and Avery Brundage, the imperious Olympian, and Arthur Sackler, the grand acquisitor. No less important are two museum directors, Cleveland's Sherman Lee and Kansas City's Laurence Sickman, who challenged the East Coast's hegemony.
Shareen Blair Brysac and Karl E. Meyer even-handedly consider whether ancient treasures were looted or salvaged, and whether it was morally acceptable to spirit hitherto inaccessible objects westward, where they could be studied and preserved by trained museum personnel. And how should the US and Canada and their museums respond now that China has the means and will to reclaim its missing patrimony?
“Sharply written throughout and packed with anecdotes, The China Collectors is one of those works of cultural history actually intended for readers of novels and newspapers”—The Washington Post
“A rollicking account of the acquisition of Chinese art and antiquities by Americans who came to China in the 19th and 20th centuries and took back vast collections from caves, palaces and the back rooms of dealers in Beijing.”—Jane Perlez, The New York Times
“The China Collectors draws on archives that include reminiscences about looting . . . [and]describes a range of items, from teacups to columns, that foreign diplomats, merchants, soldiers, archaeologists and explorers funneled to private collections and museums.”—The New York Times
"Meyer and Brysac do a masterful job of contextualizing the frenzied collecting of Chinese art by Americans into the political, historical and social landscapes of the times . . . a tale of intrigue, manners and colorful personalities."—HuffPost Books
“The China Collectors is a journey every bit as thrilling and surprising as the expeditions that fill its pages. From the story of America's hunger for Asian antiquities, Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have unearthed a tale that is rich with politics, culture, and adventure. It is not only the cinematic story of Boston Brahmins and Beijing Mandarins, dueling for China's treasures, but also an epic drama about great powers, drawn together by mutual fascination and suspicion”—Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
“The China Collectors is a treasure trove of indispensable information about North America's abiding fascination with the art, architecture, and archeology of China. It is essential reading for anyone, cognoscente and dilettante alike, with an interest in the history of the acquisition and exhibition of China's artistic heritage in the United States and Canada.”—Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania
“In this fascinating book, Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac reveal the extraordinary stories behind the outstanding collections of Chinese art in American museums. From ships' captains and pioneering explorers armed with pick-axes and guns as they braved bandits and frost-bite to pioneering collectors and dealers in the Peking antique markets of the 1920s and 1930s, the cast of characters is stunning. The questions of legitimacy and restitution are also dealt with sensitively. It is beautifully written treasure trove.”—Frances Wood, author of The Silk Road
“This edifying page-turner is the crème de la crème of archeological adventuring. Combining a connoisseur's vision of Chinese art with the narrative sweep of master story tellers Meyer and Brysac have produced the first comprehensive account of the controversial treasure hunt to pirate imperial artwork, exotic gems and ancient relics from China's vanquished Imperial palaces and the ancient ruins of Buddhist cities. This vibrant tapestry is threaded with unique vignettes and a cast of passionate personalities--who looted or salvaged, transported and traded the coveted historical treasures which now adorn the world's top museums.”—Audrey Ronning Topping, author of China Mission: A Personal History from Imperial China to The People's Republic
“Two journalists explore the allure of Asian art . . . a passion shared by some fascinating figures throughout the past century.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Historians Meyer and Brysac track the provenance of the Chinese collections housed in U.S. museums in this impressively researched survey of the adventurers who acquired these treasures . . . the issue of whether Chinese relics should be returned home is a timely one.”—Publisher's Weekly