Towards the of the Second Opium War in 1860 British and French soldiers ransacked and looted the ancient and opulent Summer Palace just outside of Beijing. The attack was justified as retribution for the recent torture and murder of a British journalist for The Times and his retinue.
The Summer Palace predated the ruling Qing Dynasty with a recorded history dating back to the eleventh century. Victor Hugo described it as a dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and a palace”. The palace held countless specimens of porcelain, silk, ancient books and art works, much of which was destroyed in the raid and the remainder was seized by the soldiers and divvied up according to rank and shipped back to Europe.
This episode rarely remembered in the West was one of a litany of historical events orchestrated by Western powers which humiliated and fractured China; an empire which for centuries stood as the regional hegemon was steadily picked apart by foreigners who destroyed their illusion of superiority via enforced trade treaties, seizures of territory like Hong Kong and displays of military muscle most notably during the two Opium Wars and later the Boxer rebellion.
The looted treasure from the Summer Palace initiated a surge of interest in Chinese and Asian art and porcelain across Europe, which in turn led to a stream of specimens leaving their home to end up in private collections, museums and warehouses across the globe. The outcome of this process was the steady disappearance of much of China’s cultural legacy.
The Fight Back
Now China has bounced back from its calamitous 19th and early 20th century and its new found wealth and confidence has led to new efforts to retrieve some of this lost treasure. These moves have been spearheaded by an unusual octopus like company, Poly Group began life as a spin-off from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Red Army had used its privileged position in Chinese society during the 1980s to launch commercial operations – which eventually gave life to the likes to world beaters mobile phone producers like Huawei, as well as Poly Group.
Poly Group has been described as the most important company you’ve never heard of, a conglomerate which has its tentacles in weapon sales, real estate, fishing and natural resources. Poly Group lies on the radar of many NGOs who view its small arms sales to conflict zones in Africa with a highly critical eye.
The PLA Connection
The company was an offshoot of the PLA but following corruption concerns in 1998 it was made a state owned company under the overview of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission. But many believe this move was largely cosmetic as much of the company’s leadership and its connections with the PLA remained firmly in place. Poly Group activities have also gained attention in Chinese government circles and it is rumoured that the latitude it enjoys from the Government in its overseas operations has earned it fierce enemies in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Poly Group has also built the world’s third largest auction house (Poly Auction) in just 15 years, which has risen from nowhere to challenge the ancient duopoly of Christies and Sotheby’s. Many regional Chinese museums have to buy their art pieces from Poly Auction giving it a firm hold over the distribution of art and antiques being sold around the country.
Poly Auction’s rise has also coincided with a wave of demand from China’s newly rich who want a piece of their nation’s past – or the more mercenary types who like to make a show of patriotically donating pieces to museums and help ensure good links with the Communist Party.
Poly Group has a mission to recover as much of China’s lost history as possible, the government see its return as bolstering its pride and as retribution for the years of foreign dominance and oppression by foreign forces, by controlling the sale and supply of its history it can do a lot to bring important pieces home. The Group also established a major museum of Chinese antiquities which houses many historically significant pieces they have repatriated from abroad.
The art world and Poly Group in particular faces significant problems of corruption and money laundering as well as regular non-payment by erstwhile buyers. Many criminals correctly see art purchases as an ideal method of laundering illegally earned money, while many auction buyers are inexperienced and over-enthusiastic and only learn about the considerable fees added on top of the sale price after the fact and leave their purchase unpaid for.
Having to pay vast sums for art works causes resentment among Chinese scholars, officials and businessmen who view as much of the art as stolen. A group of Chinese scholars made a visit of US museums over a number of years which hold Chinese art and ceramics and are planning similar trips to European equivalents to assess and record how much of its past lies in the hands of foreigners. The day when China raises its lost heritage with foreign governments as a political bargaining tool might closer than we think.