From 22 to 23 February 2024, the joint research project “Traces of the ‘Boxer War’ in German Museum Collections – A Joint Approach” will hold the first international conference on objects in museum collections suspected to have been looted in China in the context of the so-called “Boxer War.” The conference titled ‘Boxerloot! Museum collections, the ‘Boxer war’ and practices of plunder’ will take place at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich.
Many museums and private collections around the world contain objects that a variety of actors looted in China in the context of the so-called boxer war between 1900 and 1901. A military coalition known as the eight-nation-alliance invaded China in order to suppress the anti-imperialist Yihetuan movement. Subsequently, extensive looting took place in imperial palaces, temples, shops, and private homes in Beijing and Northern China.
A flourishing trade of looted objects in the streets of Beijing in 1900, which included daily auctions of looted objects, involved not only foreign soldiers, but also diplomats, missionaries, businesspeople, museum staff as well as members of the local population. They shipped vast quantities of imperial porcelain, religious artefacts, paintings, weapons, books, and everyday items around the world.
Many of these objects were gifted or sold to museums, some in the years following the Yihetuan movement by actors who had been in Beijing themselves, others later via more complicated trajectories. Some of these looted objects circulated in the international art market for decades. In many cases, the problematic provenance of these types of objects remained unknown, as the topic has only recently come into focus in the wake of broader debates concerning museum objects stemming from colonial contexts. Tracing the pathways of these objects can be a difficult task, especially as systematic research on looting practices during the “boxer war” and on the circulation of objects looted from China is also still in its early stages.