Mr Loo, the novel of an Asian art dealer

Lenain's book cover
Lenain’s book cover

Old Shanghai was often the paradise for adventurers, due to the civil war raging in China at the time as well as lawlessness and multiple jurisdictions creating many places to hide. It attracted many shady characters, some of them becoming real stars of the city. Although he was born in ZheJiang province and was coming back to Shanghai regularly for his business, Mr Loo was not really part of the Shanghai as he lived mostly in Paris and New York. Nevertheless, his story is so fascinating and linked to China in the Republic time that it deserves to be part of this blog. It is the topic of Geraldine Lenain’s book, “Mr Loo, le roman d’un marchand d’art asiatique”, Mr Loo the novel of an Asian art dealer.

CT Loo was born in a poor family in Zhejiang but became the trusted companion of Zhang JinJiang , sent as 3rd secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Paris in 1902 who took CT Loo to Paris. This changed Loo’s life forever. Zhang also opened an antic store, that was soon in the hands of CT Loo. Having learned the trade in a few years, he left on his own to create his own company. He later one opened a company in New York, organizing a triangular trade of antic from China to Europe and then the USA, but he kept the relationship going with Zhang JinJiang who became a powerful part of Chiang Kai Shek Republican government. He exported large quantities of major Chinese historic art work to the West thanks to his powerful connection in the republican administration. In the process, he made the World discover Chinese ancient art including bronzes, carved jades, stone sculptures and paintings at a time when little was know about it in the West. He help build the Chinese and Asian collections of numerous world class museums, including Paris Musée Guimet, London British Museum, New York Metropolitan Museum and many others in the USA.

One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum
One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum

His personal life was really bizarre, marrying, his lover’s daughter while keeping the relationship running with both of mothe and daughter at the same time, and having 4 daughters later on. He kept his life in China, France and the USA disconnected, having nearly three parallel lives and keeping it secret to each other most of the time. The real dark side of him is that he organized the export of China historical treasures, through his connection in the Europe, USA and the Chinese administration. Though he claims that he never organized the theft from original locations, he clearly played a major role in the process. One of the most well known example are the two sculptures of the Taizong horses, ordered by early Tang dynasty emperor Taizong in the 7th Century with 4 of the 6 horses exhibited in Xian and the 2 remaining sold by CT Loo to the Penn Museum in Philadephia. For this he is still hated in China and considered a traitor. At the same time, most of the pieces he exported have been saved from later destruction during China recent history.

Geraldine Lenain’s biography of CT Loo is a very enjoyable read, carrying us through CT Loo work, his twisted personal life and historical events of the time. Though CT Loo was a real character, his life sometimes feels like a novel. The book was written in French. For more details in English, follow this link to the excellent FT article on the book and its writer. There is no English translation of the book so far, though I am sure it will come.

2 thoughts on “Mr Loo, the novel of an Asian art dealer”

  1. All this hostility from the communist Chinese for the items exported from China; stolen or otherwise is almost embarrassing.
    Their cultural revolution destroyed so much with the consent of Mao that the Chinese should be ecstatic that all the exported items were saved from destruction.
    Mao condoned the 80% of Peking was destroyed.
    They should thank the Western museums that have saved and preserved their heritage.

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