Were the ROM's Chinese Antiquities Stolen?
According to this morning's Globe and Mail, much of the museum's extensive Chinese collection was smuggled out of China in the 1930s by an Anglican bishop for whom one of the galleries is now named. As several claims suggest, William Charles White, the ROM's first Far East Collection curator, knew he was breaking Chinese law when he sent pieces out of the country, often hidden in the luggage of visiting missionaries to avoid detection by authorities.
At the center of the article is a new book from the University of Toronto Press, which Globe journalist Geoffrey York appears to have forgotten to name. He also doesn't say what the book is actually about, or indicate who wrote it. Such insignificant details aside, it makes for a nice segue into a discussion of the future of our city's impressive collection of Chinese antiquities.
While the Chinese government hasn't yet asked for anything back (yet being the operative word), the past few years have seen a few other high-profile returns of allegedly "looted" art from similar institutions, with New York's Metropolitan Museum returning several disputed pieces to the Italian government in 2006, and LA's J. Paul Getty Museum following suit shortly after, returning antiquities from their extensive collection to Greece. While the ROM's collection was surely better cared for here than it would have been had it remained in China, where it could have easily been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, precedent suggests many of the pieces may well end up where they began.
With the approach of the Olympic games in Beijing, and the swelling of Chinese national pride that will surely accompany it, not to mention the number of new museums currently under construction there, it seems only a matter of time before China asks for the return of what was once theirs, and maybe still is.