Officials drop imperial palace treasure hunt

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am

It was once a high-profile mission that caught international attention and deemed by many Chinese nationalists an important step to gradually redress the humiliation China once suffered - but it all came to a disappointing end.

A global treasure hunt to track down items looted from the Old Summer Palace 150 years ago was launched by the Yuanmingyuan administration - which manages the imperial garden on the outskirts of Beijing - in October last year.

According to the plan, a team of specialists would target museums and libraries in the United States, Europe and Japan, including the British Museum, the Palace of Fontainebleau in France and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But just this week, a public relations official from the Yuanmingyuan administration told Globe magazine that it had no further plans to send delegations of cultural relic specialists to Europe and Japan to scour museums for looted items.

The official reason is lack of funding and insufficient preparation. But a relic specialist related to the hunt said the real reason the two-year plan was dropped was that it was simply too difficult.

During a trip to US last November, the delegation was confronted by museum lawyers because curators feared they would ask for the return of certain items, he said.

That was despite the fact the team made it clear from the start that it had no intention of reclaiming the items, only keeping records of them.

The specialist blamed 'misleading' media coverage for alarming the museums even though the team took the initiative by inviting journalists to join the mission.

A 10-person delegation - six cultural relic specialists and four journalists from China Central Television - visited nine American institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November last year to document looted items.

From the start, the international community had grave concerns about the true intent of the missions, linked to growing nationalism on the mainland and regained assertiveness among Chinese, fuelled by the country's growing wealth.

The global survey came after two years of research on the museums and libraries that hold items from the palace and archives related to it.

The expert, who asked not be named, confessed that the project, once hailed by state media, had now come to an end.

The cancellation of the European and Japanese legs would certainly mean the demise of the whole campaign from an official perspective, he said.

'Even though we're still on the plane, things were going off the boil down there on the ground,' Xu Du , assistant to the director of Yuanmingyuan, was quoted by the Globe magazine as saying.

Wang Daocheng, deputy director of the Yuanmingyuan Society of China, said that the delegation would have to do much more before they could convince the museums and other institutions to co-operate with them.

'There's nothing else you can do but drop the mission if you are not allowed to see what you want to see,' Wang said.

Yuanmingyuan was plundered by British and French troops 150 years ago, during the Second Opium War (1856-60). Chinese authorities estimate that 1.5 million items taken from the park are now scattered in museums and other institutions in 47 countries.

But it is hard to be precise because the catalogue of treasures stored in the garden was burned when British and French troops torched the palace after looting it.

The destruction of the imperial park is viewed as one of China's greatest humiliations.