1900: The Auction of loot in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion

Commented by: Christine Howald

Material Description

This clipping from The Graphic features a drawing by Joseph Nash (1808-1878) after a sketch by Fred Whiting. It was published on 15 December 1900 under the title The Allied Troops in Peking. An Auction Sale of Loot

Historical Context

The Western penetration into China in the mid-nineteenth century was criticised in the country from the beginning. At the end of the nineteenth century, a movement against Western colonialism and Christian missionary activities developed, known in English as the Boxer Rebellion. It started with violent actions against foreigners in Shandong province and the North China Plain in 1899 and moved to Beijing in June 1900. Foreigners and Chinese Christians sought refuge in the Legation Quarter. On 14 August, the Eight-Nation-Alliance (comprised of Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States) arrived in Beijing with around 20,000 troops and ended the 55-day siege of the Legation.

For more than a year the international expeditionary force occupied Beijing and other cities in northern China. Besides executions and pillages, looting followed their military actions. British and French troops had already looted the Emperor’s Old Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War in October 1860. But the looting in the wake of the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion was more extensive, as it included large parts of northern Chinese cities and areas and was not restricted to Imperial sites. For a year, the foreigners plundered temples, palaces, private estates and shops. A big part of the loot was sold on the spot: street corners were converted into market places, while soldiers, diplomats and missionaries became merchants.

Image Description

Gathered around a table in the centre of the picture are members of the army from numerous allied nations, among them Indians and Britons of the British Army, Americans and Germans, as well as civilians, all male. Three American soldiers are sitting around the table, other men on a bench on the right. The scene takes place in the open porch of a building complex. In the courtyard behind it, bare trees and another building are visible.

Various objects are presented on the table in the centre of the picture and in front of it on the floor: porcelain, bronze vessels and boxes containing silk and embroideries. Furs are thrown over the arm of a British soldier in the foreground. The auction seems to take place in a peaceful atmosphere: some participants are examining objects while others present a piece to their neighbour, and most of them seem to be waiting for the next action to take place.

Commentary

This press clipping refers to the British auction following actions of looting in Beijing after the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in the second half of 1900. The clipping was published on 15 December 1900 in The Graphic, a British weekly illustrated newspaper founded in 1869 by William Luson Thomas, an artist and social reformer. It is one of the examples from the London illustrated newspapers of the time where the looting in China was brought to the attention of the European public.

The clipping is entitled The Allied Troops in Peking. An Auction Sale of Loot. The title is accompanied by the following description:

»When the International troops entered Peking, the city was looted by the men, but the British soldiers were not allowed to loot indiscriminately. All inhabited houses were respected, and so too was the property of all Chinese known to be friendly. The loot was put up to auction and the proceeds were given to the prize fund for soldiers. The auction sales are always crowded, people of all nationalities being present. British officers are among the principal buyers. Though prices are fairly high, grand bargains are made sometimes.«

These loot auctions were an established procedure in the British army. In the British Empire it was an established principle that looted objects were the legal property (prize) of the British sovereign and that part of the loot could be awarded to the soldiers. Operating with enlisted men, the prospect of loot increased the attractiveness of becoming a soldier. The opportunities for prize were even used on recruiting posters. At the same time, uncontrolled plunder by the soldiers ran the risk of losing control over the army. Therefore, it was usually contained by military discipline and the threat of punishment. To find a balance between unchecked plunder and its control, the British army had implemented a »prize« system. It followed fixed rules: prize agents were appointed who inventoried all plunder and arranged a public auction, keeping a record of each sale. Prize money was distributed via the Royal Hospital Chelsea, following a prize roll that determined how much money had to be paid to which member of the army in accordance with his rank. In this system plundered objects were converted into prize via auction market mechanisms: they were transformed into a military-legal category.

During the looting of Beijing in 1900, the British prize auctions took place on the spot – similar to those forty years earlier after the sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace. They were organized by General Gaselee and held in the grounds of the British legation. By the end of August 1900, the auctions had become a daily routine (except Sunday) and were attended by expats from all nations and even Chinese dealers.

Bibliography

James Hevia, English Lessons. The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China, Durham / Hongkong 2003.

Thoralf Klein, Sühnegeschenke: Der Boxerkrieg, in: Ulrich van der Heyden, Joachim Zeller (eds.), ‚… Macht und Anteil an der Weltherrschaft‘. Berlin und der deutsche Kolonialismus, Münster 2005, S. 208-214.

Mechthild Leutner, Klaus Mühlhahn (eds.), Kolonialkrieg in China, Berlin 2007.

Frederic A. Sharf und Peter Harrington (eds.), China 1900 – the Eyewitnesses speak, London 2000.

Till Spurny, Die Plünderung von Kulturgütern in Peking 1900/1901, Berlin 2003.

Cite this article as:
1900: The Auction of loot in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion, commented by Christine Howald, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, https://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1900-the-auction-of-loot-in-peking-during-the-boxer-rebellion, published 08/07/2019.