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China's Lost Treasures: Plundered or Bartered?

Evening Program

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Wednesday, August 19, 2020 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. ET
Code: 1J0052
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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  • This program is part of our Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
  • Platform: Zoom
  • Online registration is required.
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From the 1790s until World War I, Western museums filled their shelves with art and antiquities from around the world. These objects are now widely seen as stolen or plundered from their countries of origin and demands for their return continue to grow louder.

Drawing on his new book, The Compensations of Plunder, Justin M. Jacobs, associate professor of history at American University, challenges the longstanding assumption that coercion, corruption, and deceit were chiefly responsible for the exodus of cultural treasures from northwestern China. From a close analysis of previously neglected archival sources in English, French, and Chinese, Jacobs finds that the removal of art and antiquities from China by Western archaeologists was generally undertaken with the full knowledge and consent of Chinese officials and scholars, who in exchange received various forms of capital or compensations deemed more valuable at the time than the objects in question.

In the decades after the 1911 Revolution, however, these antiquities went from being diplomatic capital to disputed icons of the emerging nation-state. A new generation of Chinese scholars began to criminalize the past activities of archaeologists, erasing the memory of the pragmatic barter relationship that once existed. Through his research that recovered the voices of  local officials, scholars, and laborers who shaped the global trade in antiquities, Jacobs provides an historical grounding for a contentious topic in modern Chinese history that informs debates over cultural restitution throughout the world.

Jacobs’ book The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures (University of Chicago Press) is available for sale.

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