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From a Tomb in Sichuan to a Museum in Toronto: The Money Tree & Illicit Trade in Art & Antiquities

By: Yuxin Chen

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Have you ever wished for well-being and prosperity? The Royal Ontario Museum's collection of Chinese historical art has a bronze money tree that people once believed would bring them wealth and immortality.


The Sichuan money tree (Yao Qian Shu 摇钱树) is a rare and exceptional bronze Money Tree on earthenware from the Eastern Han Dynasty of the 1st-2nd century AD. It is a symbol of power, status, wealth, and auspiciousness, created for the burials of wealthy individuals.

Money Tree, Eastern Han Dynasty. Source.


They are called money trees because of their cast bronze branches covered in images of coins. These trees were believed to bring the deceased an endless supply of wealth in the afterlife. The goddess sitting on the top of the tree is Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. In the Han dynasty's myth, she was believed to have the ability to dispense eternal life. The money tree also embodies the hope that she would assist the deceased in gaining immortality.

Depiction of Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu). Source.


Until now, these coins trees have mostly been found in excavated tombs in Southwest China, and many of them are damaged or in incomplete condition. How did this Sichuan money tree end up at the ROM, so far from its home in Sichuan, China?


In November 2000, Toronto philanthropists Joey and Toby Tanenbaum donated a large collection to the ROM. This collection includes about 100 pieces of ancient Chinese art and a bronze money tree.


The provenance of the artifacts is controversial. In-depth research establishes that some of the recent artifacts may have come from archaeological sites in the Three Gorges area. They may have been stolen from the graves or come from tomb raiders looking for treasures buried there. According to Toby Tanenbaum, he bought the collection legally from US dealers during the 1980s and 1990s, and those dealers bought everything in Hong Kong.


This is a typical case of illicit trade in art and antiquities. The sources of illicit trade are not authorized excavations, deaccessions, or sales; nor do they result from looting or theft. In the illicit trade, there is no direct transaction between supply and demand. Through the middlemen, the origin of the objects is potentially obscured.

Objects from the Tanenbaum Collection. 2022. Photo courtesy of the author.


International trade in cultural property has been recognized as a potential source of activity since the late 1940s. Today, the illicit trade in cultural objects is sustained by the demand from the art market. The opening of borders, the improvement in transport systems, and the political instability of certain countries all contribute to the increased number of antiquities lost in countries with a rich archeological background, along with archaeological sites damaged or destroyed through looting. For example, with the opening up of China to the West in the 1970s, there has been an exponential increase in illegal excavation and international trade in the country's cultural remains.

Money Tree, ROM. 2022. Photo courtesy of the author.


Artifacts circulating in the art trade and displayed in museum collections today often connect to early archaeological looting. The international museum community adopted codes of ethics regarding the illicit art trade to address the issue. UNESCO formulated the 1970 UNESCO Convention to counteract and delegitimize these practices. Yet there is still a long way to go before the relics are returned.


In 2000, as soon as the ROM discovered that items in the Tanenbaum collection came from illicit trade, Dr. Chen Shen contacted Beijing's state bureau of cultural relics. The outcome of the meeting with Chinese officials remains unknown. However, what we do know is that the Sichuan money tree remains on display in the ROM, along with the rest of the Tanenbaum collection.

Money Tree, ROM. 2022. Photo courtesy of the author.


The next time you see an object from a different culture in a museum, ask yourself: Why is this object being displayed in a museum? How did this artifact arrive at its destination in a cultural institution? If it is a donation, why was it given to the museum? What is the story behind it? And why does it not reside in its country of origin? What role do museums play in sustaining the illicit trade of cultural items? We must also ask ourselves what museums can do to prevent it.



References


Honey, Kim. “Solving a Cultural Conundrum.” The Globe and Mail, 29 June 2001, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/solving-a-cultural-conundrum/article4149929/.


Shen, Chen. “Objectives and Challenges: Past, Present, and Future of Collecting Chinese Antiquities in the Royal Ontario Museum.” Collectors, Collections & Collecting the Arts of China Histories & Challenges, edited by Jason Steuber and Guolong Lai, University Press of Florida, 2014, pp. 245–264. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Chen-Shen-28/publication/260980485_Objectives_and_Challenges_Past_Present_and_Future_of_Collecting_Chinese_Antiquities_in_the_Royal_Ontario_Museum/links/00b7d532cc99166d9d000000/Objectives-and-Challenges-Past-Present-and-Future-of-Collecting-Chinese-Antiquities-in-the-Royal-Ontario-Museum.pdf


Soudijn, Melvin, and Edgar Tijhuis. "Some perspectives on the illicit antiquities trade in China." Art, Antiquity and Law, 2003, p.149. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261220130_Some_perspectives_on_the_illicit_antiquities_trade_in_China


Steele, John, Leon Stodulski, and Karen Trentelman. "Deciphering the puzzle: the examination and analysis of an eastern Han dynasty money tree." Postprints of the 25th Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Washington DC: AIC, 1997. http://resources.culturalheritage.org/osg-postprints/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2015/02/osg005-08.pdf


Weiss, Leah J. "The Role of Museums in Sustaining the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property." Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 25, no. 2, 2007, pp. 837-876, https://www.obs-traffic.museum/sites/default/files/ressources/files/Weiss_the_role_of_museums.pdf


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