Wrongful Auction of Stolen Chinese Cannon
posted by Lawrence Cunningham
The cannon pictured was stolen from the Chinese by Webb Hayes, son of president Rutherford B. Hayes, after the notorious Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 fomented by foreign armies. Other Chinese property Hayes stole is displayed at the Hayes presidential museum in Cleveland and at West Point’s museum. The cannon will soon go on sale at auction in New York, says the New York Times, at the Cowan Auction house.
All those involved in sustaining the original theft should be ashamed, including the current “owner” and the auction house. The property should be returned to China. The current “owner” of the cannon paid $150,000 for it last year, fixed it up, and now proposes to fetch three to four times that.
It seems offensive, yet also common, for Westerners to deny that they hold stolen goods that rightfully should be returned to China. On the rare occasions when Westerners have returned such property, Chinese respond with an outpouring of gratitude.
The first such example appears to have occurred about two decades ago, thanks to senior executives of American International Group (AIG). In 1991, a senior executive of AIG’s Asian life insurance business heard that a Paris gallery came into possession of ten imposing bronze window panels. Initial research suggested these exquisite objects—each towering ten feet and emblazoned with iconic serpents and dragons—may have been part of the Baoyun Pavilion at the Summer Palace in Beijing, looted by foreign armies during the Boxer Rebellion.
The executive reported this to AIG’s chief executive, Hank Greenberg, who was also chairman of the Starr Foundation, created by his predecessor, the legendary insurance pioneer, Corneilus Vander Starr, who had opened American insurance operations in China in 1919. Greenberg, who had been running AIG’s insurance operations in China since 1975, and had many friends in the country, instantly appreciated the significance of this discovery. He knew that the Pavilion had been closed ever since, as the loss of those windows amounted to a loss of face for the Chinese people.
Experts confirmed that the window panels were indeed those missing from the Pavilion. The treasured national assets had been stolen by a French army officer amid the period’s pillaging. The Starr Foundation bought the iconic window frames from the French gallery for $510,000 and arranged for repatriation into China.
A national rededication service followed in December 1993, broadcast throughout the country on television. Millions of grateful Chinese watched tearfully during the ceremony. It was the first time that any foreign organization had returned missing national Chinese artifacts to the homeland. It was the right thing to do.
It would be the right thing to do with this cannon as well, along with the items in the Hayes presidential museum that the president’s son stole, the items at West Point, and anything else Westerners stole from the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion.