Loo sold this fresco, Assembly of Tejaprabha (early 14th century), to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, in 1932 Image Credit: Agency

Nearly a decade ago, in Paris, Géraldine Lenain’s phone rang and an agitated man’s voice came on the line. Could she meet him at the Pagoda in the 8th arrondissement, next to the Parc Monceau? It was a matter of some urgency. Could she come immediately? “I have to show you something,” he said.

The Pagoda, a flamboyantly red, tiered Chinese construction that contrasts with the adjacent slabby grey-stone buildings, was well known to Lenain. Purchased in 1925 by C.T. Loo, the most celebrated dealer in Chinese artefacts of his generation, the grand townhouse had been transformed into Loo’s Paris gallery, an Aladdin’s cave of Chinese treasures. That made it the most important conduit of Chinese antiquity into Europe of its era, a place with a legendary reputation for Lenain.

At the time Lenain was working for Sotheby’s. The man who had called her was C.T. Loo’s grandson. Loo, born in 1880 in China’s Zhejiang province, had died in 1957. But he was far from forgotten, at least not by those who handled the finest Chinese antiquities: auctioneers, collectors, curators and archivists. Many of the items that he brought from China to Europe, and later to the United States, are among the prize possessions of the museums that purchased them. Some are worth millions of dollars. Others are considered priceless. “I have been handling C.T. Loo pieces for years,” Lenain says with some awe. “But the man himself had always been a mystery.”

For a person whose name was so familiar, little was known about Loo himself. There were rumours about his origins and professional motivations. There were questions about the provenance of the fantastic pieces that he had spirited out of China over nearly half a century. His life, says Lenain, was like a Gruyere cheese. “Full of holes.”

Lenain hurried to the Pagoda, where she was led to Loo’s former library. “There was nothing there. Just boxes and boxes. So I asked, ‘Is this it?’” She began opening the boxes and quickly realised she had hit upon a treasure trove. “There were 50 years of Loo’s personal archives, not only his correspondence but all the letters from collectors, institutions, curators, his agents in China and so on. Fifty years of life.” Just as important, there were thousands of photographs of the pieces Loo had bought and sold, each with the provenance written on the back. “It was like a bomb,” she says in her faintly French accent. “A full world suddenly opened up to me.”

I am sitting with Lenain in a faux European café in the lobby of the Peace Hotel, in Shanghai, where she now lives. She is a strikingly elegant woman in her early forties with blue eyes and blonde hair, now working for Christie’s. She didn’t immediately do anything with the boxes in the Pagoda. She moved to Washington to take a job researching Japanese prints for the Freer and Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian. There, unexpectedly, she bumped into C.T. Loo again.

At that time, the Smithsonian was conducting an investigation into the provenance of parts of its collection acquired between 1933 and 1945 to see if any objects had been illegally seized by the Nazis. Among the pieces they were looking at were those acquired from C.T. Loo. The museum had already discovered that at least one of the pieces Loo had sold them, a 3,000-year-old bronze ritual vessel from the Western (early) Zhou dynasty (1046-771BC), had been seized from the Oppenheimer family by the Nazis and auctioned off in 1935. Loo had somehow acquired the piece in 1937 and sold it on to the Freer Gallery in the following year, claiming he had brought it directly from China.

Lenain took it as fate. “I said, OK, this is a sign that I need to do something. I’m the only one who knows about his personal archive. Also, the youngest daughter of C.T. Loo was 90 at the time and she was the last remaining witness. So I said, ‘If I don’t talk to her now, she will die. And then it’s gone.’” She called Loo’s daughter, Janine, and asked for permission to write her father’s biography. “In a second, she said yes.” Thus began her love affair with a man who had been dead for half a century. “I was sleeping with C.T. Loo, eating with C.T. Loo and waking up with CT Loo. I was obsessed by this man,” she says of her research. “He was a genius. Evil and a genius at the same time.”

Among those who know about Loo, opinion is bitterly divided. To some, including his family, he was the greatest of men, perhaps the pre-eminent dealer in Chinese art of the 20th century. Before Loo, most Westerners had been ignorant about Chinese antiquity. They had been interested primarily in ceramics from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), China’s last. That left out thousands of years of Chinese history, including periods when China’s most outstanding works were being produced.

Loo changed all that. Not only did he deal in objects, such as archaic bronzes, early pottery, ancient jades and Buddhist statuary, he educated an entire generation of Western collectors about China’s ancient civilisation. “He had to teach the West the value of real Chinese art,” says Lenain. Chinese pieces were categorised differently from those in the West, with little emphasis on chronology. Loo had to invent a new system of classification equating Chinese works with Western styles such as Classical, Baroque or archaic. He produced lavishly illustrated catalogues, still considered important documents today. “They needed to understand what they were buying, so he created a new dictionary, a new vocabulary,” says Lenain admiringly.

To others, though, Loo was nothing but a villain. He was a man who almost single-handedly ransacked China of its patrimony over a 40-year period, buying a fantastic array of artworks from dubious sources at dubious prices. In China, writes Daisy Wang, the curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and author of a dissertation on Loo, “he is remembered as a culprit for the depletion of the nation’s cultural heritage”. His frenetic dealing in the US, where he did most business after the First World War, was “based on America’s capitalist and imperialist logic that Chinese antiquities were to be consumed by the rich and the powerful in modern America”. Loo, she says, served as “an exotic Chinese servant for his rich and powerful Euro-American clientele”.

Loo became well known as a dealer in China, creating a demand that produced a mini-industry of middlemen who supplied his needs from imperial tombs and ancient monasteries. Freestanding statues could be quite easily removed. Reliefs needed to be hacked out. Loo would travel to China each year, selecting the pieces he liked best. Xu Jian, professor of history at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, says, “C.T. Loo directly and strongly stimulated China’s tomb-robbing activities.” In the years when Loo was most active, he says, “Chinese antiquity suffered unprecedented losses”.

Once, Lenain saw a documentary on China Central Television, the state broadcaster, in which it was suggested that Loo be “nailed to a wall”, presumably after exhumation. “It’s still very cruel, still very intense,” she says of the bitter emotions that Loo elicits. “Here in China, he’s considered a criminal, the biggest criminal of all.” Loo’s activities, she says, are judged even worse than the notorious ransacking of the Old Summer Palace in 1860 by British and French troops during the Second Opium War. The destruction of the palace — and the removal of countless treasures to Europe — remains for China a bitter reminder of its humiliation at the hands of Westerners. Beijing keeps the Old Summer Palace just as it was after being looted, with smashed buildings and strewn rubble, as a reminder of foreign perfidy. “But C.T. Loo is even worse, because he is Chinese,” Lenain says. “He’s one of them — and he betrayed them.”

As if the public controversy were not enough, Loo’s private life was as full of intrigue as the objects he dealt in. “His life was ... a novel,” Lenain says of the secrets she uncovered in his correspondence. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading.”

The metamorphosis

Loo was born in the nondescript village of Lujiadou, about 322 kilometres west of Shanghai, on February 1, 1880. His real name was Lu Huanwen. His father, an opium addict, and his mother, a field worker, both died when he was a child. Brought up by distant relatives, he led a hard village existence. It was only at the age of 28, half a world away, in Paris, that he managed to erase his genealogy by choosing for himself a more grandiose name: Lu Qin Zhai. Even then, what Lenain calls his “metamorphosis” into C.T. Loo was incomplete. To some he was Cheng-Tsai Loo, in deference to the Western tradition of placing the family name last. To others he was Loo Ch’ing-Tsai. It was the curator of the Musée Guimet in Paris who shortened his name to the one that stuck: C.T. Loo.

Loo had come to Paris in 1902 by boat as a cook in the service of the son of a wealthy merchant family. In an autobiography that he would later begin to write, that fact is erased, as is his peasant background. When Loo arrived in France, he initially dressed in Chinese robes and wore his hair in a queue. He quickly worked his way up, first progressing from servant to shop assistant when he helped his master set up a Chinese import business. The shop dealt in raw silk, tea, carpets, porcelains, antiques and lacquer. Some of the profits were sent back to China to help Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who was seeking to overthrow the weak Qing dynasty and establish a republic.

Loo began to learn the trade. Lenain says he had “an innate sense of objects”. There was big money to be made. The shop once sold a Sung dynasty (960-1279) bowl bought in China for 10 yuan, about Dh5.50. In Paris, it fetched $10,000 (Dh36,700). Interest in Chinese artefacts was rising. Not only had the items looted from the Old Summer Palace begun to circulate, in 1907, European sinologists brought back from the Dunhuang Caves in western China manuscripts written in Tibetan, Hebrew, Chinese and Sanskrit, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries. In 1908, sensing his moment, Loo opened his own small gallery in the 9th arrondissement.

As a young man, Loo was attractive to women. Black-and-white photographs show him dapperly dressed with an open, handsome face. Not long after he opened his gallery, Loo fell under the spell of a French milliner named Olga. The two fell madly in love. Olga already had an older lover and benefactor who had set her up in business. She wanted to preserve both relationships and so came up with a bizarre plan. She would marry off her 15-year-old daughter to Loo, who was twice the girl’s age. The arrangement — scandalous and, for the daughter, Marie-Rose, psychologically traumatic — lasted until Loo’s death at the age of 77. They had four children, all daughters. Loo never stopped loving Olga.

Lenain says Loo was a “hunter” rather than a collector. He discovered what would sell and he got it. Just after he opened his gallery in 1908, he acquired most of his inventory from other dealers in Europe, mainly porcelain and the small decorative objects then in fashion. By 1911 he had much bolder ideas. He opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai to obtain higher-quality objects — sculptures, bronzes and ancient jades — at source.

Loo’s timing was impeccable. In 1911, the Qing dynasty fell and a republic was established, ending thousands of years of imperial rule. Suddenly the imperial objects, sacrosanct for millennia, were fair game. Lenain writes, “Loo helped himself at will to temples, mausoleums, the imperial palace and private collections.” Lenain says of his business acumen: “He came from a really poor, uneducated family but he was the smartest guy I’ve ever seen. He smelled opportunity.”

First American sale

In 1914, Loo took the Trans-Siberian Express on a buying trip to China. He had been asked by one European collector to put together a jade collection. During the visit he managed to acquire 67 black jades dating back to the Zhou dynasty (1046-256BC). Lenain calls them “the most beautiful group of ancient jade ever put together”. After a trip to the US in 1915, Loo was quick to realise that the centre of the global art market was moving across the Atlantic. It was only a matter of months before he had established a gallery in New York. His first American sale was to Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), whom he had met by chance on a train from Toronto to New York. He sold him 13 ancient Chinese paintings for $16,500. Eleven of them still hang in the gallery named after Freer in Washington’s Smithsonian. Loo would become a supplier to museums throughout the US, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. He also did business with the British Museum. The magnificent Amitabha Buddha, at nearly 6 metres tall the largest Chinese Buddha in the West, now stands serenely in the museum’s grand staircase. It had originally been displayed at a 1935 exhibition of Chinese art in London, heralded as the greatest such collection ever shown in Europe. The 20-tonne white-marble statue was the sensation of the show. Three years later, Loo donated the Buddha, which dates back to the sixth-century Sui dynasty, to the British Museum, via the Chinese embassy. Lenain says the donation, part of Loo’s strategy to cement links with prominent institutions, was not all it seemed. He had tried to sell it in the US and had contemplated shipping it back to France. Eventually, he decided the economics of hauling a 20-tonne Buddha did not make sense.

Loo’s most notorious transaction involved two stone reliefs of horses that once belonged to the emperor Taizong (599-649). In some ways they are China’s equivalent of the Elgin Marbles. The emperor, often considered the founder of Tang dynasty, one of the greatest flourishings of Chinese culture, had the likeness of his six favourite battle horses carved into massive stone slabs for his mausoleum. There they stayed for some 1,300 years until 1913, when the horses were hacked from the Xi’an tomb. Broken into pieces, perhaps after coming under attack on the road, two of the horses were eventually sent to the new president of the republic. They never made it. Four years later, they reappeared mysteriously in New York, the property of C.T. Loo.

Loo entered protracted negotiations with the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in which he sought to bid up the price by explaining the immense difficulty of extracting them from China. The people who had acted for him, he said, “risked imprisonment and even their lives”. Eventually, a price of $125,000 was agreed. A newspaper article from 1921 was triumphant on the subject of the museum’s purchase, declaring that the emperor Taizong’s six horses were “priceless treasures”. Two of them, it cooed, had been “smuggled out of the empire a few years ago”. Loo maintained throughout that the purchase had been entirely above board. The horses had, he said, been bought from a third person after having been sold by “the supreme authority of the country”, presumably the president himself. “For China,” Lenain says, “it’s seen as the biggest robbery of all.”

It is easy to see how Loo’s practices could be regarded as deeply unscrupulous. But there are those who would defend him. Some even go so far as to argue that Loo performed a valuable service for Chinese art and for the proper recognition of its civilisation. A prominent defender of Loo’s reputation is Robert Tsao, a wealthy art collector who made his fortune helping to establish Taiwan’s semiconductor business in the 1970s. Tsao wrote a foreword to the Chinese-language version of Lenain’s book (originally written in French), which was published in Hong Kong last October by New Century Press. An English translation is also planned. In it, he defends the idea of the art market that Loo helped create, arguing that artefacts without a monetary value are rendered worthless. He cites the example of a rare blue porcelain bowl from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), used by an unknowing farmer to feed his chickens. China, he says, does not have a proud tradition of preserving its antiquities. Emperors frequently melted down the bronze statuary of predecessors to mint coins. Tomb-raiding has a history of 2,000 years and cannot be blamed on the demand created by men such as Loo.

I went to see Tsao in the Hong Kong apartment he keeps in the airy heights of Mid-Levels overlooking the harbour. (He also has residences in New York, Taipei and Singapore.) Arranged carefully throughout the gallery-like living room are beautiful objects he has acquired over the years, including a bronze panel rescued from a Tibetan temple destroyed during the cultural revolution, and a serene stone Buddha head from China’s Sui dynasty (581-618).

“They say that foreigners stole our cultural treasures away from us. But they exaggerate this to cover up what they did themselves,” he says, recalling how Red Guards used to smash the faces off Buddha sculptures. “Actually, it was China that did the most damage to its own cultural relics.”

Tsao, who owns some archaic jades handled by Loo, doesn’t deny that the Chinese dealer was “simply out to make money”. But in doing so, he says, he became a “kind of ambassador for Chinese culture”. Why, he asks, did so many Chinese treasures flow out of China to the outside world? “The major factor is that foreigners were more interested in Chinese cultural relics than [the] Chinese were.”

Cultural ambassador or ransacker-in-chief, Loo’s luck ran out in 1948. The civil war in China between the communists and the nationalists was reaching its climax. In July, he received a telegram bearing the news that one of his most important shipments, containing several national treasures, had been stopped by Shanghai customs officials. For once, his timing was poor. In the following year, the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in October 1949 sealed Loo’s fate. The new government branded his Chinese business associates counter-revolutionaries, part of a wicked plot to strip China of its patrimony. In 1952, Loo became the target of the “five-anti” campaign: bribery, fraud, tax evasion, theft of state goods and possession of economic secrets. Return to China became impossible. Some of the people who had dealt with Loo were dragged off to jail. One fled to Hong Kong, where he spent the remainder of his life. Loo’s representative in Beijing sought to survive by handing over thousands of pieces to state museums. Eventually the past caught up with him and he was sentenced to years of hard labour. He died in a work camp in 1976.

The year after the communists took over, Loo turned 70 and retired. Claiming to be financially ruined, he began a liquidation sale. In the introduction to his final catalogue, he took a rare opportunity to defend himself. “Certainly there exist certain of my compatriots who condemn me for having taken out antiquities from China, recognised today as national treasures,” he wrote. “No matter which object I exported from my country, they were all bought openly on the market, in competition with others.” He went on: “I am happy today that these objets d’art that I exported are securely and carefully preserved for posterity, because I think that if they had remained in China, many of these beautiful objects would have been destroyed.” He could not have known, of course, that before long Mao would order the destruction of the “four olds” — old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking — unleashing a frenzy of vandalism, particularly against the religious temples from which many of Loo’s finest artefacts had come.

My search for C.T. Loo ends neither in China nor in Europe, but in Philadelphia. I am headed for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, now commonly known as the Penn. I am met by Alessandro Pezzati, the museum’s head archivist, a wonderfully intense man whose thoughts ricochet off one sentence and into the next like a pinball. We sit and talk about Loo, particularly about the two Taizong emperor’s horses, the giant stone reliefs whose presence in the US is so controversial. “They’re priceless,” he says. There are only six in the world and Penn has two of them. He calls Loo the “pre-eminent” dealer of his generation. Of course, he says, he was no angel. “Most people are contradictory, especially those who make a big mark. By necessity, they may have qualities that aren’t ideal.”

In the wood-panelled archive room, there are three boxes of correspondence between Loo and George Byron Gordon, the museum’s then director. Most of the letters concern items that have come Loo’s way and which he wishes to offer Gordon for the museum: bronzes, ceramics and paintings. Some of them discuss the two stone horses from emperor Taizong’s tomb. Letters from the 1970s, two decades after Loo had died, concern a plaque that Rosalind Ting, a faculty member, saw when she visited a museum in Xi’an. The plaque accused the Penn of having “stolen” the Taizong horses. Ting tentatively inquired whether they could be returned, perhaps in exchange for something else. Pezzati says Penn’s position has always been that the horses were legally purchased. “If they had been stolen, we didn’t steal them,” he says. “There’s layers. C.T. Loo is our layer.”

Despite the controversy, there has not been official pressure from China to return the horses, though one newspaper reported that the reliefs had been one of the initial talking points for the historic 1972 meeting between Mao and Richard Nixon. In 1997, Jiang Zemin, then China’s president, asked to see the horses during a state visit to the US. Museum officials reported that the Chinese delegation was “thrilled” with the cavernous rotunda in which the treasures were displayed.

The rotunda is indeed impressive. Its cathedral-like dome dwarfs even the giant temple frescoes from the Ming dynasty, which also came courtesy of Loo. The two stone horses, carved on slabs of limestone 6 feet (1.8 metres) tall, 7 feet (2.1 metres) wide and 1 foot (31 centimetres) thick, are displayed nearby. One horse stumbles on valiantly despite being pierced by arrows in battle. The second, the only one of the six to be accompanied by a human figure, stands resolutely as a general pulls arrows from its chest.

Shortly after the horses were acquired, Carl Bishop, then curator of the museum’s Asia department, proclaimed their renown and beauty. “Perhaps no horses existed that have ever become so famous,” he said. “Of the artist who wrought these masterpieces, we know practically nothing ... [but] the sculptures themselves proclaim him one of the greatest artists of any age or nation.”

The small plaques next to the reliefs give a short description of the horses, their names and their great significance to the Taizong emperor. There is no mention anywhere of C.T. Loo.

–Financial Times