The acquisition of the Wegener collection of Chinese paintings by the British museum

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The Burlington Magazine

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Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.


THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY saw a burgeoning interest in the collection and study of Chinese antiquities. From 1870 scientists and archaeologists had been sent by the governments of Britain, Russia and France to Xinjiang to explore the doc uments and relics of ancient China. This growing interest in Chinese antiquities led to numerous expeditions being dispatched by the governments of Sweden, Germany, Finland, America, Canada and Italy, to the provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu.1 At first, archaeologists searched for sculptures and architectural elements, but their inquiries were soon extended to manuscripts and paintings.

To maintain Britain’s sense of imperial power and to compete with neighbouring countries, the British Museum began to expand its collections of Oriental art with specimens of high quality and rarity. Following the acquisition in 1903 of an early Chinese handscroll, Admonitions of the court instructress (Nushi zhen tu),2 a large number of seventh- to tenth-century Buddhist paintings, manuscripts, textiles and other objects were removed from Cave 17 at the Thousand Buddhas cave complex (Qianfodong), near Dunhuang, by Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862–1943) in 1906–08, during his second Central-Asian expedition.3 The ‘archaeological proceeds’ recovered from western China were of exceptional historic and artistic importance (many hundreds of objects from the Stein expedition were acquired by the British Museum) and became primary sources for the study of Buddhist art and the civilisation of early China.

While Stein was aware of the competition from German and French expeditions in Central Asia, Laurence Binyon (1869–1943) of the British Museum was concerned with maintaining the pre-eminence of the Museum’s collection of Oriental painting. It was the competition among Western museums that encouraged Sir Sidney Colvin (1845–1927) and Binyon to propose in 1910 the purchase of the important collection of Chinese paintings made by Frau Olga-Julia Wegener, thus enhancing Britain’s national collection in its rivalry with Germany and France. While the Stein collection of Buddhist art has been extensively studied by modern scholars, little has hitherto been written about the Wegener collection. This article aims to reconstruct historical details of the collection’s acquisition, with a focus on the controversies surrounding the work’s historical and aesthetic value. It also aims to illuminate the role of Colvin and Binyon in enriching the British Museum’s collections and map out their social network of collectors, connoisseurs and artists in Britain, Germany and America.

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Recommended Citation

Huang, Y. L. M.. (2013). The acquisition of the Wegener collection of Chinese paintings by the British museum. The Burlington Magazine, 155(1324), 463-470.