Asian Antiques Appraisals And Valuations

C.T. Loo – Who Was He?

C. T. Loo, also known as Lu Huanwen, Lu Qinzhai, Cheng-tsai Loo, and Loo Ch’ing-tsai, is a prominent and controversial figure in the world of Chinese art. Born in Lujiadou, west of Shanghai, Loo was raised by relatives after his father, an opium addict, and his mother, a field laborer, died when he was a child. After serving as a cook for diplomat and wealthy merchant Zhang Jinjiang, Loo arrived in Paris in 1902 and quickly adopted Western ways.

In Paris, Loo worked his way up from servant to shop assistant in Zhang’s Chinese import business dealing in raw silk, tea, carpets, porcelain, lacquer, and antiques. Loo’s innate business acumen meshed with the growing Western interest in Chinese artifacts and China’s tumultuous break with its past. In 1908, Loo established his own small gallery, Lai-Yuan and Company, in Paris, from which he sold inventory acquired from other European dealers. Three years later, in 1911, in an effort to obtain high-quality objects directly from China, he opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

When the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, thousands of objects and sculptures from temples, mausoleums, and imperial and private collections flooded the art market. Loo acquired and sold items—at greatly inflated prices and sometimes under unscrupulous circumstances or with questionable provenance—to private collectors, such as Charles Lang Freer, and to museums in the West, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the British Museum in London, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

Loo’s prominence as a Chinese art dealer continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He opened the “Pagoda,” a five-story red structure at 48 rue de Courcelles in Paris in 1928 and filled it with his vast collection of Chinese stone sculptures, murals, and bronzes. During these decades, the Chinese art trade flourished as new museums in the United States were founded and interest in collecting Chinese antiquities grew. However, his business began to decline in the 1940s when a new generation of museum curators and art dealers emerged, the United States entered World War II, and civil war broke out in China.

Loo remained active as an art dealer until 1950 when he retired at the age of seventy and liquidated his collection. Shortly before that, the communists under Mao Zedong had gained control of China, and Loo’s supply lines were cut. The new communist government condemned Loo’s Chinese business associates as counter-revolutionaries and accused him of bribery, fraud, and the theft of state goods. The US trade embargo against China, which was enacted in 1951 and lasted for twenty-seven years, essentially ended Loo’s long career.

The debate around Loo’s legacy in the world of Chinese art continues. While some criticize him for taking art treasures out of China and accuse him of unscrupulous practices, others praise him for saving a cultural heritage and enlightening Western collectors about Chinese art. Nevertheless, Loo remains a significant figure in the history of Chinese art, with his legacy continuing to influence the way that the West views and collects Chinese antiquities.

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