restricted access Dragons of Silk, Flowers of Gold: A Group of Liao-Dynasty Textiles at the Abegg-Stiftung (review)
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Reviewed by
Regula Schorta, ed., with contributions by Anja Bayer, Lynette Sue-ling Gremli, and James C. Y. Watt. Dragons of Silk, Flowers of Gold: A Group of Liao-Dynasty Textiles at the Abegg-Stiftung. Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung, 2007. Pp. 312, 270 illustrations (mostly color), glossary, bibliography. CHF 85.00. ISBN 978-3-905014-31-0.

This volume documents a hitherto unknown group of seventeen Liao silk garments, along with a silk comforter, a silk pillow cover, a silver funerary mask, and a pair of golden earrings. These luxuries are catalogued with such outstanding photographs and such meticulous descriptions that the book can virtually serve as a substitute for the originals. In addition to the catalogue, there are four essays, two of which discuss the artifacts as a group while two summarize the scant current knowledge about Liao textiles. Three appendices provide details on high-tech analyses of dyestuffs, materials, and radiocarbon dates. It is rare these days to find such elaborate publications devoted to just twenty-two objects, and among studies of Liao material culture it is altogether unprecedented. So why are these objects so deserving? According to the Abegg Foundation, it is because of their extraordinary aesthetic quality. Most of the garments are tailored of gauze fabrics and exquisitely embroidered, but some are also made with luxurious polychrome samits and damasks with patterns not seen before. Moreover, by an unheard-of stroke of luck, all of the textiles have survived the ravages of time extremely well; even the colors are still intense and vibrant. As a coherent group, these clothes are indeed unique.

Unfortunately, the artifacts are tainted when it comes to their provenance. An anonymous seller in Hong Kong is said to have supplied most of them to unnamed European antiquities dealers at an unspecified time. The Abegg Foundation, a private textile museum in Switzerland and one of the leading centers for the conservation of historic textiles, acquired the objects between 2000 and 2002 in five different transactions. Regula Schorta, the director of the museum, explicitly laments the artifacts’ provenance in her preface and deplores the loss of archaeological data as a result of the looting which necessarily preceded their appearance on the international art market. Yet the Foundation decided to make the acquisitions despite the moral dilemma that ensues from the purchase of looted antiquities, taking the position that a purchase would provide the best possible fate for the objects themselves. The textiles’ conservation and the splendid publication that resulted prove that the Foundation lived up to its commitment. Nevertheless, the purchase [End Page 237] comes at the risk of emboldening a still young international trade in looted Liao textiles.1 It would therefore have been desirable if Dr. Schorta had addressed this risk as well, ideally by clarifying the Abegg Foundation’s policy for future acquisitions of medieval Chinese textiles. After all, international efforts to combat tomb looting have made significant strides since 2002. Both China and Switzerland have since enacted new cultural property protection laws, and numerous museums in market states have followed the Getty Museum’s lead and adjusted their acquisitions standards to better reflect ideals formulated in the UNESCO conventions on cultural property.2

The bulk of Dragons of Silk, Flowers of Gold was written by the art historian Sue-ling Gremli and the textile conservator Anja Bayer. Bayer provides extensive material analyses of the silks and recounts the conservation challenges. The latter included the removal of ancient mold and other age-old microorganisms (a task that was complicated by the fact that most of the clothing was made for the cold seasons and is lined and padded with silk wadding), the repair of areas damaged by a mysterious resin that affected all but two of the textiles (the resin is compared to the balm used in Egyptian mummification, but no further analysis is given), and the preservation of the fragile, gold-wrapped paper threads used in the embroideries.

Gremli, in keeping with the museum’s aim to rectify some of the damage done by the looters, directed her research at reconstructing basic information about the lost archaeological context. After carefully comparing the fabrics and their damage, she concludes...