Loot from the “Boxer War”? Searching for Traces in the East-Asian Collection

Incense burner, enamelled, 18th century

The Museum am Rothenbaum posesses a considerable body of Chinese art and cultural assets that were acquired shortly after 1900. They may have been looted in the imperial city and in public institutions of Beijing during the Boxer war of 1900/1901. Western as well as Chinese researchers are aware of only a small portion of these objects.
Objects looted in a war are often sold and resold several times before they even arrive abroad. Therefore, a classical „provenience research“, conducted by tracing former owners, is hardly feasible with this body of objects. The project therefore adopts another approach: It focusses on identifying the objects in question by ascertaining their former sites in Beijing. The crucial question is: Which of these objects can only have been situated in a palace or in a public institution? Which ones are very unlikely to have been sold legally – e.g. through Chinese art and antique dealers – to Germans living or travelling in China?
Another focus is on the question what the loss of these objects once meant for the plundered institutions and persons, and what their absence has meant for descendants of former owners and for research conducted since.
Parallel to the project´s progress, the identified objects and the new knowledge about their context are to be made accessible to Chinese and international researchers, in digital as well as physical form.

The project has three parts:
1) Recontextualisation of objects in former institutions
2) Research of the „collecting strategies“ of war participants in contrast to German residents in China, taking as base those objects for whose previous holders or donors biographical information is available.
3) Research into the proposition, offered by Chinese historians, that Germans were especially active in looting Buddhist art.

The results of the project will be presented in MARKKs new permanent exhibition that is now under planning. If a research grant can be acquired, a systematic catalogue of suggestions for provenience research in colonial collections, based on institutions of origin, shall also be developed.
Right now, the project is carried out with the museum´s own financial means and parallel to the routine work of the South- and East-Asia department. A cooperation with Shanghai University and other Chinese institutions is in the making, but was delayed by the recent pandemic. Further attempts at securing a research grant will be made after the establishment of this cooperation.

Dr. Susanne Knödel
Head Curator / Curator of the South- and East Asian Department
fon +49 40 42 88 79 – 240
mail susanne.knoedel@markk-hamburg.de