cover image The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures

The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures

Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. Palgrave Macmillan, $30 (432p) ISBN 978

Historians Meyer and Brysac (Tournament of Shadows) track the provenance of the Chinese collections housed in U.S. museums in this impressively researched survey of the adventurers who acquired these treasures. Focusing on a “curious, catlike herd” of colorful collectors, the authors open with the Bostonians who blazed a trail to China at the turn of the 20th Century, such as the eccentric heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner and the China rooms of her eponymous museum. She was guided by Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton, who “preached the gospel of good taste,” and his acolytes. Museum goers may be familiar with Charles Lang Freer or the Rockefellers’ legendary collection of Ming pieces, but it is the lesser-known characters such as Harvard’s Ernest Fenellosa and shady art dealer C.T. Loo who introduce a frisson of intrigue. Evidence indicates that museum curators were complicit in funneling Chinese art to the U.S. until WWII. Despite recent measures taken by the Chinese government to protect its antiquities, the sheer volume of historic sites has made looting impossible to monitor. With ancient treasures such as the Elgin Marbles in the news, the issue of whether Chinese relics should be returned home is a timely one. [em](Mar.) [/em]