Dutch restoring clocks from Chinese imperial collection
A Dutch museum has begun restoring three antique musical clocks from the imperial collection of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing. By Rachel Levy.
The three clocks are part the largest collection of musical clocks worldwide and were made by Western artisans, primarily British.
The first three clocks were transported to Utrecht, central Netherlands, in early February to be restored by the world-renowned Utrecht National Museum from Musical Clock to Street Organ.
"The clocks came into possession of successive Chinese emperors from the 17th century onwards. There is no documentation about their exact date of arrival, so that it is not always known which clocks were given to which emperors," the museum's curator Bob van Wely told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
[Photo: (left to right) Guo Fuxian, Curator of the Palace Museum, Dick van Minnen, Head of our restoration department and Curator Bob van Wely.]
In 2010, 20 musical clocks are to be exhibited in the museum. It marks the first time Chinese state treasures will be exhibited to the public outside Chinese territory.
"Musical clocks date back to Western Europe of the 13th century, with written sources referring to musical clocks already in the 9th century," van Wely says.
"What initially started as a musical clock developed into a fully-fledged automatic musical instrument, such as a pianola, by the early 20th century. The era ends with the invention of the gramophone, of course," he explains.
"The clocks of the Chinese collection are the most beautiful in the world. Even the finest West-European clocks are primarily pragmatic. But European clocks made for the oriental market are exquisite pieces of art."
According to the curator, famous clock makers such as James Cox and John Pike designed clocks that had a lot of what we would call bling today: gold, jewels, crystal and frills.
"The clocks were often small towers or boxes, entirely covered with gold; gold that was melted into dancers, trees, bells, animals. These clocks are examples of unparalleled artisanship."
This type of antique clocks are auctioned for 500,000 to 800,000 euros (760,575 to 1.2 million dollars) per piece - though Van Wely considers that pieces from the Chinese imperial collection could be worth substantially more.
Van Wely had always known the Forbidden City owned a beautiful collection, but did not know the extent of it. Nor did he know the Chinese were so eager to cooperate with the Utrecht Museum.
Photo: Van Welly: struck by the unparalleled artisanship of the Chinese collection.
"I was told about it by the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with whom we have a very good working relationship. I send them an email asking if we could perhaps get some of their pieces for an exhibition. The Chinese replied positively within a day."
Van Wely travelled to Beijing, and discovered that Dutch expertise could be put to use.
"After the last emperor was deposed and the Forbidden City was transformed into a museum in 1925, no new clock makers and restorers were educated in China," he says.
"We soon discovered the Chinese did not have the expertise to take care of their own treasures. Substantial parts of the collection that I saw were in a horribly neglected state."
The second time he visited China, Van Wely proposed that the Utrecht Museum would help the Chinese restore several clocks and teach them how to do it themselves.
In exchange, the Chinese would lend some pieces to the Utrecht museum for an exhibition.
The project costs some 1.5 million euros, most of which is financed by the Dutch authorities and private partners. The Chinese were requested to finance one tenth of the budget.
"They were tough negotiators," says Van Wely, adding that he received training prior to the negotiations with the Chinese to familiarise himelf with the culture.
The Chinese ultimately agreed to cover around 140,000 euros of the entire budget. In return, eight of their pieces will be renovated, and their restoration experts will be trained.
"Restoring the whole collection would take hundreds of years," says Van Wely, who says the Chinese are very eager to make contact with the West.
"We requested an independent Dutch film maker, Pieter Fleury, to film the entire process for a documentary. The Chinese even permitted him to film unrestricted in the Forbidden City. That is unprecedented."
In March, the first delegation of restorers and curators from Bejing is due to arrive in Utrecht.
"We look forward to it," says Van Wely, "it will be a wonderful cultural exchange."
3 March 2008
[Copyright dpa 2008]