A unique set of mural portraits stolen from the ancient tomb of a Chinese princess has been smuggled into the West. Because of their unorthodox origins they are for sale at reduced prices, reports Geraldine Norman

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 13 April 1996 23:02

THE magnificent T'ang dynasty murals illustrated here were almost certainly illegally excavated near China's former capital, Chang-an, and were probably smuggled out of China some time in the last 15 years. They were acquired in Hong Kong last year by Gisele Croes, a Brussels art dealer, and are undoubtedly the rarest artistic masterpieces for sale anywhere in the world today. She has eight individual figures, painted life-size on plaster, priced at $200,000 (pounds 135,000) a time.

Artists at the luxurious courts of the T'ang emperors in the seventh and eighth centuries AD developed a style of figure painting so brilliant that it has dominated Chinese art for more than a millennium - its influence can still be traced in contemporary brush painting. The T'ang artists were realists and could convey both character and three-dimensional solidarity with a simple combination of line and colour wash. But very few paintings of this period have been preserved - the style is mainly known from later copies.

The paintings in Buddhist and Taoist monasteries in the chief cities of the T'ang empire were destroyed during the troubled Hui-ch'ang era (AD841-846). One connoisseur, Chang Yen-yuan, recorded his grief at the time: "Now gold comes from the mountains and pearls are produced in the waters and men father these things without ceasing for all under Heaven to use. But paintings with the passage of months and years are destroyed and scattered until almost none are left. And since the famous men and ingenious scholars who created them can never live again, can one refrain from grief?"

Until 1960 the only original T'ang paintings of which the world had any knowledge were a handful of tattered works on silk or paper and the Buddhist murals in the complex of temple caves at Dunhuang. The work of the great court painters, which was extensively described and praised by contemporary writers, was quite unknown. Then archaeologists found the tomb of Princess Yung-r'ai (AD684-701). The walls of the long, sloping passage leading down to the tomb, a horizontal passage at the bottom, an antechamber and the tomb chamber itself were decorated with murals depicting contemporary life by the hands of very gifted painters - clearly the court painters so praised by their contemporaries.

They had recreated a palace for the princess under the ground. The ceilings were painted to imitate the sky with clouds and birds. Her customary attendants were painted on the walls, ladies in waiting walking in the garden, soldiers, grooms and their horses.

In the early 1970s the tombs of her brother, Crown Prince I-te (AD682- 701), and her uncle Prince Chang-huai (AD654-684), were discovered and when opened, were found to contain more splendid murals depicting hunting, polo playing and other activities that the princes had loved in their lifetimes. Since then a dozen or so smaller tombs containing similar mural paintings have been found. But it remains almost impossible to see these masterpieces of T'ang art.

For the sake of preservation, the Chinese authorities have gouged the paintings off the walls and removed them to the museum at Xian where they are stored well away from light and not put on exhibition. Even scholars find it difficult to obtain permission to see them. Exact copies by clever contemporary Chinese artists are shown for the public's delectation. The catalogue of an exhibition of these copies at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1976 appears to be the only English language publication which gives a full description of the new found paintings.

The paintings that Gisele Croes is offering for sale clearly come from a similar tomb which was stripped by tomb robbers rather than archaeologists. Seven of the figures, all painted by the same fluent hand, are clearly attendants while the eighth, painted by a different artist with more painstaking detail appears to be a portrait of the princess who was buried there. Unfortunately the plaster around her head has been damaged and some bits are missing - the style of her elaborate hairdo would have revealed her exact status in society. She will probably never be identified.

The life-size figures of attendants are painted with extraordinary speed and control - a sketch technique that is reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec. The skill and psychological insight of the artist can be equated with the top Western Old Masters. Although achieved with only a few lines and a simple wash of colour, each face and figure is full of character.

They are also enormously decorative. One lady attendant in a striped skirt is carrying a porcelain pillow for the princess's head while another holds a hairpin. A guard holds the handle of his sword while he points in the direction of the tomb - he was probably painted on the wall just outside the tomb chamber.

Two further figures of attendants, which are almost certainly from the same tomb, were recently acquired by TT Tsui's private museum in Hong Kong. The Tsui and Croes panels constitute the only court paintings of the period outside China.

Tsui, a billionaire entrepreneur who made his money trading with mainland China, paid for the redecoration of the Chinese galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum a few years ago. The presence of similar murals in such a collection helps to legitimise Croes's smuggled murals. All the same, many collectors and museums are likely to be put off by their illicit origin. This is reflected in the price of the paintings - $200,000 is not much for such unique masterpieces.

Pottery and bronzes illegally excavated from tombs have been pouring out of China for over a decade. The case with which this booty has been transported for thousands of miles across China before being smuggled across the frontier to Hong Kong has led to dealers to conclude that the government unofficially condones, if not encourages, the trade. Hitherto, most leading dealers, museums and collectors in the West have been prepared to buy obviously smuggled goods - if they were good enough.

Gisel Croes is only unusual in that she is selling smuggled goods so openly - most deals like this are struck behind closed doors. She has exhibited her murals at two major antiques fairs, the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht last month and the International Asian Art Fair in New York two weeks ago. A small woman, bubbling with character and enthusiasm for her work, Gisele Croes explained to me that such decisions have to be made instantaneously in her trade.

"I didn't know I was going to come across them," she said. "I was visiting a Hong Kong collector with the hope of selling some things. He showed me the murals and asked if I would be interested in buying them. I had to make up my mind in a quarter of an hour."

It was quite a plunge. Presumably she paid something not far short of $1 million for them - most art dealers try to make a 100 per cent mark up on their purchases and she is now asking $1.6m (pounds 1m).

Quite apart from the problem of offering smuggled goods for sale, there was the question of authenticity. Along with illegally excavated grave goods, fakes are pouring into Hong Kong. Many of them are of a brilliantly sophisticated standard, since China has never lost its great craft tradition.

Once she got the panels back to Europe, Croes asked a British conservation scientist, Dr Nicholas Eastaugh, to analyse the pigments and plaster. Then she sent his report to a leading conservation scientist in mainland China, Dr Li Zuixiong, who wrote an introductory essay for her catalogue explaining that all the materials are characteristic for the period.

The small print of the catalogue reveals that Dr Li is Chief of the Conservation Institute of the Dunhuang Research Academy, Council Member of the Association of Cultural Relics Conservation Technology and Guest Professor of the Chemistry Department Lanzhou University, and of the Cultural Relics Conservation Department, Fudan University. That's quite a mouthful to report, but no doubt Croes feels that the support of such a top dog helps to suggest that China is not going to ask for the murals back.

! Gisele Croes is based at 54 Boulevard de Waterloo, 1000 Brussels, telephone 00 1 322 511 8216.

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