1861: Photograph of the Yuanmingyuan loot

Commented by: Léa Saint-Raymond, Christine Howald

Material description

Photograph of the Yuanmingyuan loot, in Catalogue d’une précieuse collection d’objets d’art et de curiosité de la Chine provenant du Palais d’Été de Yuen-Ming-Yuen […],auction catalogue, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 1861-12-12, Paris (Pillet fils aîné) 1861. Probably taken by Albert Bertall, the pseudonym of Charles Constant Albert Nicolas d’Arnoux de Limoges Saint-Saëns (1820-1882). Dimensions 12.4 x 9.1 cm, opposite page 1. Copyright : Léa Saint-Raymond, photograph auction catalogue curated in Paris, INHA Bibliothèque.


This photograph illustrates the first sales in Paris of the artefacts looted in the Yuanmingyuan, the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing. Taken in 1861, it was also the first photograph made of those objects before their sale by auction.


During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), British and French troops fought to expand their commercial privileges in China. The war ended in Beijing in October 1860 with the looting and burning of the Yuanmingyuan, one of the official seats of government of the Chinese Emperor Northwest of the Chinese capital. Both the official objects taken as “prize” and objects taken by the army members for their personal use, began to arrive in Europe by the end of 1860, where they were kept as souvenirs and curios in the private family collections of expedition members or bought through dealers and auctions by museums and amateurs, fuelling a burgeoning interest for Chinese porcelains.

In Paris, the first auction took place at the Hôtel Drouot, on December 21 1861: this photograph was taken around this time, most probably by the seller, Albert Bertall. The latter had an unusual background, since he was neither a former member of the allied troops nor a dealer, but an artist. Bertall was the pseudonym of Charles Constant Albert Nicolas d’Arnoux de Limoges Saint-Saëns (1820-1882), who was an illustrator, engraver, caricaturist and owner of a Parisian photography workshop.

The photograph – probably taken in Bertall’s workshop or in a courtyard of the Hôtel Drouot, as suggested by the pavement in the foreground – does not appear in any other copy of the catalogue. We can thus guess that there were two types of catalogues (with and without picture), targeting different potential buyers, or that Bertall enriched his personal copy with the image. In any case, the presence of a picture was highly unusual: for auction sales of Asian artefacts in Paris, illustrated catalogues do not appear before the early 1890s. Even London auction catalogues of the 1860s usually do not include photographs or other images of the artefacts on offer.

This picture offers a view of some of Bertall’s own Yuanmingyuan artefacts, about to be sold at auction. The presentation oscillates between a war trophy and a bric-à-brac, the French word for a somewhat haphazard ensemble of curios. It is quite difficult to identify precisely the artefacts in the photograph, especially the ceramics and cloisonné pieces, as the descriptions of the items were very short in Bertall’s catalogue, as was habitual in the 1860s. However, without any doubt, this picture shows the “armour of a Tartarus general”, looted in the Imperial Summer Palace (number 73 of the auction catalogue). It reached the highest hammer price, sold for 870 francs, plus 5 percent hammer fee, to a certain Mauloir, who remains unidentified. This information is available through the minutes of the auction sale, curated in the Archives de Paris and can also be found online, in a dataset of all the Parisian auction sales for the Yuanmingyuan loot (Saint-Raymond, 2018).

After the Plunder of the Yuanmingyuan in 1860, the market movements were still strongly related to the provenance of the objects and auction catalogues referred to their place of origin. It was not a fact to be hidden, but a selling point. Almost every catalogue referred to the Summer Palace (respectively Palais d’Été in French) or the Emperor’s household as the object’s place of origin and used it as an important element in the semantic creation of value – either already in the title of the catalogue or in the description of the object categories as well as a supplement to object descriptions. In French catalogues, details of the exact original location in the palace were sometimes provided. Contrary to this, no mention of the provenance was made in the years after 1900, when thousands of objects looted in the course of the Boxer Rebellion in many different sites in Beijing and Northern China were auctioned in Europe.

At Yuanmingyuan, looting was not solely carried out by members of Western military forces but also by Chinese locals. Many of the objects from the Imperial collection were sold on the free market either directly after the loot or many years after. The itineraries of the objects on the global art market are diverse and have not been sufficiently researched yet. We don’t know much about the dealers involved and their global networks. In any case images such as this one are an extremely rare and precious source to understanding the commodification processes that these pieces underwent shortly after the events of 1860.


Christine Howald, The Power of Provenance. Marketing and Pricing of Chinese Looted Art on the European Market (1860-1862), in Charlotte Guichard, Christine Howald and Bénédicte Savoy, ed., Acquiring Cultures. Histories of World Art on Western Markets (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018) (forthcoming).

Christine Howald and Léa Saint-Raymond, Tracking dispersal: auction sales from the Yuanmingyuan loot in Paris in the 1860s, Journal for Art Market Studies, forthcoming.

Léa Saint-Raymond, La création sémantique de la valeur: le cas des ventes aux enchères d’objets chinois à Paris (1858-1939), proceedings of the conference ‘Déplacements et créations sémantiques Chine – France – Europe’ (Paris: Éditions de la rue d’Ulm, forthcoming).

Léa Saint-Raymond, The Yuanmingyuan Loot at Parisian Auctions in the 1860s : Artefacts, Hammer Prices, Sellers and Purchasers, Harvard Dataverse, 2018, doi:10.7910/DVN/0COI5J (available under: https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi%3A10.7910%2FDVN%2F0COI5J)

Louise Tythacott , Trophies of War: Representing “Summer Palace” Loot in Military Museums in the UK, in Museums & Society, 13 (2015), 469-488.

Cite this article as:
1861: Photograph of the Yuanmingyuan loot, commented by Léa Saint-Raymond, Christine Howald, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1861-photograph-of-the-yuanmingyuan-loot, published 16/05/2018.
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