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North American Silk Road Collections: From Germany to North America

By Miki Morita 28 October 2016

In my previous IDP blog post, I talked about the inscription on the back of the Penn Museum’s fragmentary mural from Turfan. The inscription clearly indicates that it was once a part of the German collection, or to be exact, the Turfan collection originally housed in the Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde). How then did this and other similar pieces ended up in North American collections?

Many archival records of such pieces bear the name of Albert von Le Coq (1860-1930) as the source of the pieces. Albert von Le Coq participated in the second through the fourth German expeditions. Le Coq started his academic career in his forties as a volunteer researcher at the Museum of Ethnology and served as the director of the museum’s department of Indian art from 1923 to 1925. His presence in the archival records indicates that he was partially, if not entirely, responsible for the transfer of these German pieces to North America.

Two men and a donkey in front of cave dwellings, historic black and white photograph
Albert von Le Coq and Mamasit Mirab in front of caves of the ‘Eastern Main Group’ including ‘Cave 163’ in Kizil, MIK B 1070 © Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Kunstsammlung Süd-, Südost- und Zentralasien, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

The issue of the dispersion of the German pieces, especially of mural fragments, has been recognized for a long time, and several scholars have already discussed it from the perspectives of both art history and collection history (see works of Lee, Morita, Schlingloff, Ueno, and Zhao in the references). Among them, a recent study by Professor Sonya Lee of the University of Southern California especially details the process through which the pieces in question were brought from Germany to North America.

Around fifty Central Asian mural fragments in the United States are confirmed to have been removed from Germany through their sale in the 1920s. This was a difficult decision for Le Coq, who was planning an exhibition of the Turfan collection in the time of a depreciating German mark and concomitant inflationary pressures. The pieces, selected mainly based on their relative dispensability when compared to those in better conditions remaining in the Museum, were sold through the hands of various dealers. These included Edgar Worch, who was an agent from the firm called Ludwig Glenk in Berlin, and Abel William Bahr, a collector and dealer of Chinese art in North America. (Lee 2015, 11-12)

The same study by Professor Lee also sheds light on the shift of function and meanings of such Central Asian pieces that resulted from these sales and dispersions. Moving into the collections of people with different agendas, some of the German pieces were transformed into art objects serving the goals of their new owners. In the Museum of Ethnology, these Central Asian pieces were exhibited in accord with the museum’s educational agenda for the general public and Le Coq’s intention to tell the narrative of the classical antiquity’s eastern genealogy.

Some of the German pieces ended up in private collections, while many pieces were purchased by North American museums through dealers after the pieces had left Germany. Sixteen pieces of Kizil mural paintings were purchased and later donated to what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum by John Gellatly (1852–1931). As he was primarily known for his collection of American Art, the Kizil pieces were appreciated aesthetically as art works and exhibited without any indication of their Central Asian contexts. (Lee 2015, 5-11; 12-14)

In other cases, the new owners sometimes appreciated Central Asian pieces as expressing a fundamental unity in artistic or religious works across cultures and times. This was the case for the French author, art historian, and statesman, André Malraux (1901-1976). Malraux saw a striking similarity between Buddhist heads from Afghanistan and the sculpted heads of Notre-Dame de Reims of the French Gothic which led him to promote his Afghan Buddhist heads as the ‘Gothic-Buddhist’ works, embodying the sentiment found in the French Gothic art works (Levine 2012). Interestingly, according to Ernst Waldschmidt, Malraux’s pieces possibly originated from the same source that supplied pieces to the Berlin Museum of Ethnology (Waldschmidt 1932, 3; Levine 2012, 637-638).

Cropped from Buddhist visual narratives of cave shrines and reframed as independent pieces, many buddhas, bodhisattvas, and celestial beings with their serene expressions were appreciated in new ways in new contexts.


Levine, Gregory P. A. 2011. “Malraux’s Buddha Heads.” In A companion to Asian Art and Architecture, edited by Rebecca M. Brown and Deborah S. Hutton, 629-646. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Lee, Sonya S. 2015. “Central Asia Coming to the Museum: The Display of Kucha Mural Fragments in Interwar Germany and the United States.” Journal of the History of Collections. Advanced Access published October 17, 2015. Accessed February 4, 2016. doi: 10.1093/jhc/fhv031.

Morita, Miki. 2015. “The Kizil Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum.” The Metropolitan Museum Journal 50: 115-135.

Schlingloff, Dieter. 2011. Albert von Le Coq und die Wandmalereien von Kizil (Addendum zu der Denkschrift: T III MQR, Eine ostturkistanische Klosterbibliothek und ihr Schicksal). Leipzig: private print.

Ueno Aki 上野アキ. 1978. “Kijiru nihonjin dō no hekiga: Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 1” キジル日本人洞の壁画: ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 1 [Mural paintings from Japaner Höhle in Kizil: Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 1]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 308 (October):113–20.

― 1980a. “Kijiru dai san ku maya dō hekiga seppō zu – jō: Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 2” キジル第三区マヤ洞壁画説法図—上: ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 2 [Mural paintings of preaching scenes in Māyāhöhle, 3. Anlage, first part: Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 2]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 312 (February):48–61.

― 1980b. “Kijiru dai san ku maya dō hekiga seppō zu – jō (zoku): Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 2” キジル第三区マヤ洞壁画説法図—上 (続): ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 2 [Mural paintings of preaching scenes in Māyāhöhle, 3. Anlage, first part (sequel): Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 2]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 313 (March):91–97.

Waldschmidt, Ernst. 1932. “Die Stuckplastik der Gandhära-Schule (Zu Einigen Neuerwerbungen des Museums Für Völkerkunde).” Berliner Museen 53 (1):1-9.

Zhao Li 赵莉. 2009. “Kezi’er shiku bufen liushi bihua yuanwei kaozheng yu fuyuan” 克孜尔石窟部分流失壁画原位考证与复原 [Historical retrospect on mural outflow in Kizil Grottoes and restoration in its original site]. Zhongguo wenhua yichan 中国文化遗产 [China Cultural Heritage] 2009(3):88–99.

Note: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Michelle C. Wang for her insightful suggestion for this blog post.


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