Imperial jade, ivory, bronzes, silks and embroideries – all for sale at rock bottom prices (in 1908 that is)

Absolutely fascinating article from the New York times in 1908, reporting on the sale of The Sarah Pike Conger collection of oriental antiques. Containing priceless artifacts, even by 1908  standards, its in today’s terms that the prices paid are even more eye catching:

  • Elephant’s trappings from the imperial elephant stables:   $150.00
  • Large gold alloy cast bell from  Temple Of Agriculture $560.00
  • Chinese executioner’s sword engraved with dragons:   $25.00
  • Antique cloisonné enamel palace seat:   $540.00

 

A bit of historical background.

Mrs. E. H. Conger (Sarah Pike Conger) was the wife of Edwin H. Conger, who was the “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to China” (in other words the ambassador to China) from 1898 until his resignation in 1905.  An author who wrote several books about her time in China, and experienced the turbulent time of the Boxer Rebellion first hand, having been besieged for 55 days in the British legation quarter in 1900. She was also a friend of the Empress Dowager Cixi and some items in her collection were gifts from the empress herself.  In fact, the only known image of Cixi touching a foreigner is of the two of them together.

In many circles however, the auction was highly controversial. The Washington Herald’s 1908  announcement of the auction was less then flattering in it’s assessment and notes with irony that as she was the ambassadors wife, the items even entered the country tax free.

The soldiers who stole these things were glad of any market for they could carry little away with them, and in the far east today, stories are still told, with many a chuckle, of ignorant soldiers selling diamond studded watches and priceless bronzes for a handful of Mexican dollars

Meanwhile the fact of the sale must give our Chinese friends food for thought. It is hard to see how the morality of the case can be defended on any grounds. Without mincing words, the property that is to be put up at auction is stolen poperty, and the shame of this looting rests, in a measure, upon us all as American citizens.

Meanwhile the Evening Times has this to say:

The Conger  collection, which was sold  in New York last week was  advertised as being  chiefly loot  taken in Peking  after the  allied armies ocupied  the  city.  E H. Conger, of Iowa, was then United States Minister to China. He did not himself steal the  imperial jade, ivory and bronze pieces, or the  silks and embroideries;  but the thieves who did steal them found a ready market at  the  United States Minister’s quarters under the flag of the United States. The minister showed his shrewdness by keeping a record of the distinguished owners of the stolen property. It was a good  investment.

Such things must have been cheap when the allies were looting Peking but what do the American people think of one of  their ministers raising  the sign over his door: “Cash for stolen goods here.”

“What must the Chinese people think of a nation that permits it.

 

Of course this was not the only controversial auction at the time. Herbert G. Squiers, who was the First Secretary of the American Legation in Beijing was said to have amassed such an extensive collection of antique Chinese porcelain that when he eventually left Peking, it filled several railroad carriages. When the Squiers Collection was sold in 1912 it too was also accused of being looted goods.

 

CHINESE ANTIQUES SOLD.

New York Times – Feb 20, 1908

Auction of effects of former Minister Conger’s Widow.

The hope of geting Chinese loot brought a large throng yesterday to the first day’s  sale of the Oriental collection of Mrs. E. H. Conger, widow of the late Minister Plenipotentiary to China, at the American Art Galleries. There are nearly a thousand lots, all told, and the sale goes on every afternoon this week. Brasses, bronzes, idols, cloisonne, and weapons came first on the list. The sale was held in one of the small galleries, and every seat was filled. Standing room was at a premium.

The prices were good throughout, and ranged from $5 up to more than $300. The Metropolitan Art Museum and the Peabody Museum of Salem, Mass., were among the purchasers. The biggest piece of loot brought the highest price of the day. It was a big cast brass bell, 12 Inches high by 9 1/2, in diameter, which was taken from the Temple Of Agriculture during the Boxer rebellion in 1900. It was bought by K. Slater for $560.

It is a beautiful bell, of a rich colored brass, in which there is said to be gold alloy. It was sold with the original red rope by which it hung in the Chinese temple. It belonged to the k’ang-hsi period (1662-1722), and was rung once a year when the Emperor, who is supposed to be particularly the patron and father of those who cultivate the soil, ploughed a piece of land in public.

Two old and interesting pieces, which went to the same purchaser for $1,010 ($505 each), were cast iron temple gongs. These bore the marks of dedication in relief. They were used in the Buddhistic services, and the two together make  chimes very rich, clear, and of long continuance.

The largest purchase by the Metropolitan Museum was that of a part of an elephant’s trappings, which came from the imperial elephant stables, and was used during the reign of the Emperor Ch’ien-lung. It was a, great ball-shaped ornament of brass, 16 feet high by as many in diameter, in a design of dragon and cloud scrolls and mounted on a circular base, also of brass. It sold for $150. The museum also bought an antique brass Chinese ink box for $14, an antique brass, square-shaped bowl for $20; a miniature hand mirror of the Ming period, polished brass, for $10; another larger one of the Hsuan-te period for $30, and an interesting antique brass kettle for heating wine for $30.

Interesting among the armor sold was a big Chinese executioner’s sword engraved with dragons, a double-handed grip, and a bright red scabbard, which went for $25. Another without the scabbard was bought by the Peabody Museum for $16. The Peabody Museum also bought an old Chinese sword with an odd blade, a cavalry sword, Boxer swords and pikes, and a couple of wooden weapons from the Sulu Islands.

An antique cloisonné enamel palace seat, in the shape of a barrel, brought one of the highest prices of the afternoon, going to Henry F. Ross for $540. On one end was a mark of the Ming period, and the cloisonne was of the reign of Ch’in-t’ai. Mr. Ross also bought for $205 an antique Chinese incense burner, oblong, on four feet and chiselled in designs of the dragon and Svastika, of the Wan-li period.

A. E. Durrant paid $180 for a palace bell of cast  brass with chiselled designs,  mounted in a teakwood frame, and $200 for a large antique brass vase. Mrs. Henry Elling paid $180 for a tripod incense burner of brass ornamented in engraving and relief with designs of the sacred lotus.

A quadrilateral-shaped Chinese enamel-covered vase with tree peonies and chrysanthemums in natural colors on a turquoise blue ground went to Geraldyn  Redmond for $390. It had brass mountings and cover, the latter surmounted by the sacred fungi.  The receipts of the afternoon’s sale , were $8,057 .

Original print of 1908 article in the New York Times can be found here.

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