LiteratEye Extra: China’s Prank Thwarts ‘Theft of Culture’

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Prank News

Editor’s Note: W.J. Elvin III’s LiteratEye column about literary hoaxes is featured here, and only here, every Friday. This is a LiteratEye Extra:


News Analysis: China’s Prank Thwarts ‘Theft of Culture’
by W.J. Elvin III, March 3, 2009

artchinanewsafpgi-200Do pranks have a role in repairing theft of culture? Apparently the Chinese think so. Quite often, theft of culture refers to items captured by a conquering army, so-called “spoils of war,” sometimes excused as “war souvenirs.” There are many other ways items of cultural significance are liberated from their proper homes including outright theft, sale by someone who has no right to sell, and treasure hunting (sometimes in the respectable guise of archaeology), to name a few.

Examples could be drawn from the world over (see More nations demanding return of relics, from Business Inquirer) but this particular case is from China, formerly a huge shopping mart for collectors and now trying to reclaim some historic cultural items it considers plundered. When two extraordinarily valuable Chinese bronzes went up for auction the other day, the high bidder at nearly $40-million, a Chinese government official, then refused to pay.

China had asked the Christie’s auction house to pull the bronzes from the sale and return them to their homeland. Christie’s refused and went ahead with the sale. The high bidder, it turns out, was on the staff of China’s National Treasures Fund, and he immediately announced having no intention to pay for the items – thus positioning even brighter media spotlights on Christie’s and its policies. (see Winning bidder won’t pay for Chinese relics, from CNN)

On the surface the issue seems simple enough. Culturally significant items taken from a country that treasures them should be returned to that country.

But there are complications. One is the “to the victor belong the spoils” ethic, rather ingrained in most warlike cultures. Another is the capitalist notion that what is bought and paid for is owned, backed up by the legal dictum that possession is a major proof of ownership. All that can be easily argued against, but what about this: Do relics of Hitler’s atrocities rightfully belong to Germany?

I wrote at length about problems now emerging regarding “souvenirs” collected in World War II and now coming out of basements and attics as veterans of that era pass away. That story, which may be found halfway down the page at my antiques blog, was written a few years back but remains very much to the point today.

Bringing the issue home, that is to a state level, one example is a case I covered in Fiona magazine involving an early copy of the Declaration of Independence deemed state property in Maine but held by a Virginia collector. The Virginia Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the collector.

Exploring this issue and its manifestations could run on for volumes. The interesting point, I think, is China’s end run around the incredible legal expense and lengthy investment of time by all concerned when these cases are taken to court. China derailed the sale not by court order but by prank.

Undoubtedly, auction houses will now take steps to prevent that particular sort of sabotage from happening again, but it demonstrates the power of the prank in what amounts to cultural warfare. It remains to be seen whether this is an isolated incident or may reflect an emerging strategy for China. Somehow I can’t picture the Peoples Army in clown suits marching under a “Pranks Not Tanks” banner.

Other recent posts by W.J. Elvin III:

  • LiteratEye: Really Great Sermon, Sir; Could I Have Your Autograph?
  • LiteratEye: Author Keven McQueen Recalls A Master Prankster of Yesteryear
  • A LiteratEye Extra: The Mystery of the Missing Fake Author
  • LiteratEye: George Washington Lied About Taxes