“The West was not worthy of such works of art“
06.11.2017“The West was not worthy of such works of art“
In the case of European-American art, research into the provenance of works most often examines the question of confiscation during persecution by the Nazis. But what is the situation with regard to East Asian collectibles? In 2017, Christine Howald, a research associate in the Department of Modern Art History at the Technical University of Berlin, took part in the German-American exchange program for provenance research in museums (PREP). Together with Alexander Hofmann from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum), she organized the world’s first ever workshop on provenance research into East Asian art. It was held in Berlin's Dahlem district on October 13–14, 2017.
Your workshop represented an initial assessment of the state of provenance research into East Asian collectibles. It was the first time that all or most of the experts in this field from the German-speaking countries had come together. How would you sum it up?
Hofmann: Our goal was to bring together curators and scholars who are interested in the subject, so that they could consider it in greater depth. What we wanted to do in the workshop was to network, to think about methodology, potential tools, practical aids, and databases, and to set up frameworks.
Howald: And it couldn't have gone better. We had colleagues coming from museums, universities, and the art trade as well as lots of students and lay people from all over Germany, Austria, and Switzerland – and even from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and France. The interest was so great that towards the end of the registration period, we even had to turn down some applications. Once again, it became clear how important it is to meet in person, especially when you are trying to reconstruct the biographies of individual objects. The opportunity to talk directly to individuals even led to actual cases from museum collections being solved. The most important thing, however, is to establish contexts for these object biographies. This means doing basic research and making it accessible to the whole academic community as well as the general public – preferably in digital form. The need for basic research of this kind became apparent during the workshop, as did the need to digitize all of the significant source material. In addition, the participants all expressed a wish to establish a means of staying in regular contact. Besides the lectures, we worked in groups to develop practicable ideas, which we will now start to implement.
Ms. Howald, you contacted the museum at the beginning of your research project. What exactly did you have in mind?
Howald: This is a comprehensive research project on the market for East Asian art in the West. Of course, if you want to get to grips with that, you need to access archive material and do research into specific objects, so the Museum für Asiatische Kunst was the obvious place to turn to, as an institution with a distinguished history in the field of East Asian collectibles in Germany. It has turned out that there are many interests in common.
What are your interests, Mr. Hofmann?
Hofmann: At our museum, the whole matter of provenance has naturally always been an aspect of interest in the history of the collections. Yet it is really a question that people have become more aware of in the last few years, owing to the strong politicization of the issue in the context of the Humboldt Forum. For example, I am currently dealing with our large collection of woodcuts, which has a complicated provenance. The Museum für Asiatische Kunst has been closed to the public since January 1, 2017, while we get everything ready for the move to the Humboldt Forum. I have long been planning to use this time to sort out the woodcut collection, including the matter of provenance. But, like most art historians who have studied more general aspects of their respective specialist subjects, I have comparatively little experience of provenance research, so I wanted to network with people who have expert knowledge of this area.
Are there many provenance researchers specializing in East Asian collectibles yet?
Howald: There are the people who work in the art trade...
Hofmann: ...and people doing research into individual dealers, but not in terms of provenance. And that's the other thing: the methodology. Specific methodology has been developed for provenance research into European-American art, focusing on the question of confiscation as an aspect of persecution by the Nazis. We, in contrast, have to keep an eye on the colonial context and take the matter of regional markets into consideration – it's a really difficult act to accomplish. And then, if you want to conduct research of any substance, you also need the relevant language skills, which most provenance researchers currently active in the field do not possess in advance.
Why didn't anybody tackle all this more intensively in the past? Were no inquiries of this kind received?
Hofmann: So far, restitution requests have not really related to Asian collectibles much.
Howald: China has been active since 2009, when a commission of experts was set up to catalog objects in museums around the world that stem from the looting of the Summer Palace and the Boxer Rebellion, but so far it has not made any requests for their restitution. However, the Chinese government is currently investing more in university-based projects, such as the Investigation and digitalization of valuable Chinese folkloristic artifacts and documents in overseas collections – a project at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. The project leader , Professor Wang, is in contact with us. This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we want. We need to build cooperation with colleagues in China, Japan, and Korea, which of course is a huge task that can only be tackled within the framework of long-term projects.
Hofmann: People say that there are no colonial problems in the case of Japan, but this is only true to a limited extent, because Japan had a colonial empire first in Korea, and then in China during the 1930s. I don't know whether we have archeological and/or Buddhist cultic objects in our collection that originate in China and came via Japan. I don't believe that it is going to be a huge problem, but of course research into this question is absolutely necessary and useful – and it must be carried out in the near future.
And your project, Ms. Howald, is about the historic art market – exactly what period does it cover?
Howald: I have taken 1842 as the starting date. It was then that China had to open itself to the West after losing the first Opium War. It was followed in doing so by Japan and Korea in succession. And so a market that had been latently discernible in Europe for many centuries suddenly opened up. There had been trade along the Silk Road since ancient times, but the market had never been an open one. Foreigners had always been subject to restrictions: for example, they could not trade directly, only through middlemen. For a time, they were only permitted to anchor their ships in one harbor, in Guangzhou. There was a small island there called Shamian, where they could only put ashore at certain times of the year and received goods through middlemen. And these goods were made only for the western market.
Why did the countries of origin impose such restrictions?
Howald: Because they were worried. Although they took advantage of the trade, they catered for the Western market only in ways that suited them. This was partly due to the significance that works of art had in China. They did not exist for the purpose of export, because they had a specific status in the social hierarchy of the country. In the eyes of the East Asian ruling classes, the West was not worthy of such works of art.
Hofmann: Absolutely. Whatever they did send abroad as art and whatever they offered in trade, it seldom consisted of works that were highly esteemed in China.
And your research work, Ms. Howald, what time frame does it cover? 1842 to ...?
Howald: Up to the Second World War. It was during these hundred years that the Western market for East Asian collectibles really developed as such. At first, people dealt in anything they could get hold of: curios, everyday objects, handicrafts... everything. In the late 1860s, the West experienced a boom in collecting Japanese art, which was partly due to political developments in Japan itself – a change of regime. Later on, at the turn of the twentieth century, a preference arose for genuinely old art from China.
Hofmann: Even before the turn of the century, Japan had been following a policy of active Westernization. Among the most important collectors of East Asian art were Western professionals, such as doctors, who had been offered jobs as a means of bringing specialist knowledge to Japan. I can think of a several German doctors who were in Japan during this period – we are talking about the 1870s – and who built up substantial collections. There were also great and important collectors among the engineers and diplomats.
How do you go about your research?
Howald: For me, auction catalogs are an important source. That's because, especially if they contain annotations, they give a tremendous amount of information about who sold or bought items, what was traded and at what price. From that, you can deduce how the market was developing; you can see when particular objects came onto the market in Europe, or when the prices of particular objects rose or fell. The German Sales Project provides marvelous access to German auction catalogs. They are the starting point for any compilation of data. Then I move on to the next sources such as correspondence, accession ledgers, and collection inventory lists. As a rule, museum archives usually contain not only the accession records, but also correspondence, from which you can find out which dealers were offering which objects and when... as well as who they were offering them to – often several museums at the same time, or one after the other. That way you can see who was competing in a particular area, how the collection profiles were categorized, and which items were traded when. Of course, I also make use of the estates left by dealers, but that's not a simple matter: Do they still exist, and if so, are they accessible? And if they aren't accessible, meaning that they are in private hands, getting to see them is usually a very lengthy business. That's another reason why the auction catalogs and museum archives are good places to start.
In other words, your project work will also function as a huge exploratory portal for those who want to continue working on the topic, and will provide a basis for actual provenance research.
Howald: Exactly. That's what is missing. There are East Asian collectibles in many museums, not only in specialized collections like those in Berlin or Cologne. And many museum professionals are looking for a standard work about the market that they can use as a starting point for finding out more about their own collections.
Hofmann: That really is missing! A monograph that casts light on the market and its structures. We do have isolated studies of individual dealers, and of collectors, but the actual market structure has not been clarified. Museums simply can't manage to do that! We are too busy running day-to-day affairs, with exhibitions, publications, and the preparations for the Humboldt Forum. Something like that can only be done at the level of university research – in cooperation with museums, of course.
Howald: Yes! Projects with a broad scope like mine, especially, can only be set up at a university. But collaboration between museums and universities goes beyond basic research of this kind. We also need it for systematically analyzing the origins of the contents of museum collections! This kind of provenance research is not something that you do casually, as the occasion permits. Students can make a valuable contribution here – and at the same time, museums and universities are arranging joint seminar courses to foster the next generation of provenance researchers. Universities can also provide long-term support with networking.
Hofmann: Provenance research is naturally part of our day-to-day work, but above all else it is object-related. So it cannot be done systematically without preparation and organization. That's why networking is important, and that's where our workshop comes in. We said to ourselves that we had to try to get the people in this field, who work hard but often on their own and in relative isolation, together at one table, so that we can establish long-term structures to make the job easier for all of us. For example, it would prevent a situation in which five people are researching the same dealer separately, without knowing about the others.
Mr. Hofmann, you mentioned the woodcut collection earlier. Why is this actually problematic?
Hofmann: For one thing, this collection of more than 8,000 sheets has never been digitally recorded in its entirety, only in part [as a catalog of 1,200 selected items]. For another, the collection includes items from various sources [the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) and the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts)] and it was not transferred to our museum from the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) until 1967. One bundle of several hundred sheets comes from the East Asian collection of the former East Germany. For the most part, therefore, the objects and the accession records have become separated. In this case, the main concern will be the classic provenance research contexts of confiscation – meaning the Nazis and then communist East Germany – rather than that of colonial injustice.
Are the two of you working on other projects besides the workshop?
Hofmann: Yes, we are working together besides that. In the coming semester, for example, Christine will be holding a seminar on objects from the museum, which I will be involved in as the contact here at the museum.
Howald: Yes, we are working together besides that. In the coming semester, for example, Christine will be holding a seminar on objects from the museum, which I will be involved in as the contact here at the museum.
To end with, here is a slightly different question: What do you make of a book like “The Hare with Amber Eyes“
Howald: It's wonderfully written...
Hofmann: ...but it is, of course, a memoir about family history and not an academic paper. Nevertheless, we shouldn't underestimate its effect, because it may have sensitized many people to the topic! Perhaps it has also helped others to recognize the value of providing funds for such research, without which we cannot make progress in establishing the provenance of our collections.