Bronze at British Museum may be loot
Drum stand now owned by Shanghai Museum but origins unclear
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 200, March 2009
Published online: 11 March 2009
LONDON. The centrepiece of the Chinese bronzes exhibition, “Treasures from Shanghai”, at London’s British Museum appears to have been illegally excavated within the past few years. However, it is now legitimately the property of the Shanghai Museum. The British Museum show is the first time the bronze has been exhibited.
Dating from 770-476 BC, the drum stand is decorated with three intertwined dragons. It probably comes from the tomb of a ruler, from a site that is unknown to archaeologists, possibly in Shanxi Province. Other important finds, such as musical instruments, may well have been looted from the tomb.
Shanghai curator Zhou Ya points out that the example on loan is “unlike anything else known from China”. Only six other bronze drum stands are known: five were excavated by archaeologists between 1978 and 2002 and one was acquired by other means (now in the Poly Art Museum, Beijing).
The Shanghai Museum has not given details of when and how the drum stand on show in London was acquired. In China, major antiquities from illicit sources are sometimes bought by the authorities for museums, to prevent them being smuggled abroad. However, there are concerns that this encourages illicit digging.
It is unclear whether the drum stand falls within the British Museum’s guidelines. Its loans policy, approved last September, states that the museum will “not lend to any exhibition which includes objects that have been...illegally excavated” and in requesting loans it observes “the same principles”. However, it could be argued that the fact that the Shanghai Museum now owns the item overrides these considerations.
Nevertheless, concern has been expressed over the loan. Archaeologist Professor Colin Renfrew, a British Museum trustee until 2001, said last month that “a little more due diligence in this case might have been useful”.
A British Museum spokeswoman stressed that the drum stand is “incontestably a Chinese object, it left with Chinese government approval, and the loan was approved by the Cultural Relics Bureau”, and “we feel it is important to allow the public access to this wonderful object”. The museum said that it is “not aware that the object was illegally excavated”. However, it does “deplore illegal excavation and the loss of archaeological context”. “Treasures from Shanghai” runs until 27 March.
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