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For three years, the French Sinologist Paul Pelliot (1878–1945) led an expedition from Paris to Beijing, crossing Central Asia. He was accompanied by Louis Vaillant, an army medical officer who took topographic surveys, and Charles Nouette, who produced about 1,500 photographs. They visited a number of ancient Silk Road sites, including Dunhuang and the nearby Mogao Caves.

Pelliot selected a range of religious and secular manuscripts and printed documents from Cave 17. These are now at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The majority are in Chinese and Tibetan languages, with about 3,000 and 4,000 items respectively. The many secular texts in this collection have been one of the primary resources for research on the socio-economic and legal history of medieval Central Asia and China.

Pelliot also acquired hundreds of portable paintings, as well as several wooden sculptures, textiles, fragments of wall paintings and terracottas from Cave 17 and other Mogao caves. They are kept in the Musée national des Arts asiatiques (Musée Guimet).

Highlights from the collection