Antique Collectors In China Don’t Care About Provenance Either

I’ve criticised Western museums for buying or accepting as gifts looted Chinese antiquities. This practice, in my opinion, stems from an outdated and irresponsible fine arts perspective where the exact provenance of a museum piece is not very important. When you’re dealing with anonymous prehistoric or early historic art, you can’t attribute it to any named artist, and so an art curator will quite happily settle for “Han dynasty, probably the Yellow River area” as a date and a provenance.

As an archaeologist, I do not accept the category “fine art”, and I claim precedence for the classification as an archaeological find over that of a museum display piece. Any object that has been part of the archaeological record must have a recorded exact provenance: otherwise it is a stray find or loot. The beautiful pieces shown in exhibitions of ancient Chinese artefacts deserve a find-spot provenance recorded to the nearest centimeter, with photographs, field drawings, environmental samples and an exact record of what was found along with each piece.

Let’s be clear about this: archaeological context or provenance is not about when and where an object was made. It’s about when and where it entered the ground, and under what circumstances it was unearthed. The archaeological context describes an object’s find spot.

Today I visited a lovely museum in Hangzhou for the second time, the Southern Song Official Kiln (Guan Yao) Museum. And I was reminded of the fact that the Chinese themselves have a 2500-year tradition of collecting choice artefacts without recording their provenances. The museum displays hundreds of pieces of Chinese pottery from the Neolithic onward with emphasis on the 13th century when the site itself was an Imperial celadon factory. Not one of them has a provenance. Everything is generic: labelled only with functional category, type of ware, sometimes the kiln site, and dynasty with start and end dates. The pottery in the museum has no individuality. Each piece is just an example of a generic type belonging to a generic time frame. In some cases the visitor is told that the pottery was found during excavations on the kiln site itself, but we learn nothing about the closer context. Most of the pieces are incomplete and look like wasters, but you can’t be sure.

In the indigenous elite tradition, it is irrelevant where a certain Zhou dynasty bronze sacrificial cauldron-tripod was found. The important things are to be able to classify it and read its inscriptions. This gives some background to the on-going clash between the fine art world and the demands of archaeology. It’s not entirely a question of Western dealers, collectors and museums exploiting China’s heritage. The Chinese have had an established tradition of their own for collecting fine art for millennia. As a rigorous discipline, archaeology is barely 200 years old in the parts of the world where it has been practised the longest. We want the finds to speak to us about the past. Non-archaeologist Chinese want the nice ones to exemplify classical categories of fine art. And the not so nice ones, they don’t want at all.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

12 thoughts on “Antique Collectors In China Don’t Care About Provenance Either”

  1. Your post here has got me thinking a little about provenance, museums and how this relates to archaeology as entertainment.

    Do you think perhaps that whilst we archaeologists are very keen to learn about provenance and the individual stories that can be teased out of such information, this element of narrative history is still largely not part of the popular sphere (in the West at least, I cant speak for China)?

    I realise the situation is probably a lot better than it once was but despite coming from a country that was in on the game very early, popular perceptions of archaeology are still quite often ‘object related’, the entertainment coming from the a of fascination with the aesthetics and a wonder at something old.

    Perhaps we need to get better at hammering home the cool stories behind these objects?


  2. I don’t know if this is common elsewhere, but in the U.S. we use the term “provenience” for archaeological provenance. Thus distinguishing archaeological concerns from those of fine art.


  3. What is a “waster”? I can imagine a couple of things, but it sounds like specialized jargon in this case.


  4. Uh, since nobody else is going to put you out of your misery .. I’ll wade in.
    It’s pot that’s gone a bit Pete Tong in the firing.
    Usually gone kablooie. Cracked, blown up, or warped like a Plague Monk. Or glaze gone all weird.
    Most potteries have ginormous pits full of the stuff (old claypits). I mean absolute mega-FuckTons. They’re great for nailing down origins and distribution (of the pukka stuff), as those boys never made it off the shop-floor, and most antiquarians and aesthetes usually shudder and run a mile from the ugly rejects .. not so the Chinese, interestingly.
    Outdoor clamp-type kilns were particularly prone as they get rained on. A lot, at inconvenient moments. And can’t go indoors, unless your shed is brick or stone, with a slate roof. And preferably cast-iron rafters … etc.


  5. Indeed, wasters are misfired pots that litter pottery production sites. That’s how archaeology identifies them, which helps no end with the sourcing of pottery types.

    There are wasters in the museum I mentioned because the site it stands on is a 13th century pottery industry with a hillside “dragon kiln” and workshop floors preserved in situ.


  6. Huh, I’m an art historian and however I may care for the ooh, shiny, I’m interested even in the less than perfect stuff and I damn love to know where the stuff comes from. It puts the object into a wider perspective.


  7. To give you a feel of just how much of this stuff is lying about, here’s a couple of pics for the curious.
    Shows the state it ends up in as well, smashed to buggery.
    “Shraff”. There’s another weird old word for it.
    First, being got rid of, by men with moustaches and flat caps ..

    and some being dug up again, by women and men with ponytails and hard-hats..


  8. Amazing, the old pic!

    We found signposts in the parking garage of a major mall here in Hangzhou the other night. They read “Shroff Office”. Judging from the Chinese script, “shroff” is Engrish for “tariff”.


  9. Thanks, guys. That was one of the things I thought wasters might be, but always nice to know for sure.


  10. Me gustaria conocer un poco mas sobre el coleccionismo en china ya que voy el 16 de este mes soy coleccionista y me gustaria hacer negocios con algun articulo que le interese de Venezuela


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