The holdings of the V&A's Asia Department include world-renowned collections from China, Korea and Japan. Objects from East Asia have been actively collected by the museum since its establishment in 1852, although they were only brought together in a dedicated curatorial section in 1970.
The first 60 years of the museum (1852 – 1912) saw growing international trade and imperialist expansion, and Britain grew its network with the countries and cultures of East Asia exponentially. This led to growing public interest in East Asia that was partially satiated by major universal exhibitions; the V&A was born of the proceeds of the first of these, the Great Exhibition of 1851. Established a year later, the new museum drew its early collections from a wide range of donors and vendors. Curators aimed to acquire objects that showcased exemplary art and design and were of interest to a contemporary public.
We have a comparatively good understanding of the activities and institutional relationships of major dealers who specialised in the trade of East Asian material culture, such as Yamanaka & Co., S.M. Franck, and Siegfried Bing. Significant purchases from these dealers, either in size or historical value, have enjoyed public and scholarly attention. But there is much to be discovered about the other vendors from whom the V&A purchased objects. There were many minor career dealers and independent people selling the odd few objects to the museum. Who were they? What can we discover about them?
Objects from East Asia have entered the V&A's collections through various means: though purchase, gift, bequest, and, occasionally, transfer from other museums. The decision-making process for a purchase is generally well-recorded and much of this physical documentation is preserved. Before the 1990s, the V&A's Acquisition Registers were the main physical record used by curatorial departments to document the objects under their care. Whether hand-written or typed, bound into large volumes or stored in binders, these registers remain a valuable resource. When objects from China, Korea and Japan were transferred from other departments to form the East Asia collection in 1970, their corresponding register entries were photocopied and meticulously collated into binders that still reside in the Asia Department's records.
These registers contain the unique museum number of each object, and a physical description made at the time of acquisition. They sometimes also include subsequent opinions about the object given by internal or external experts. The registers also contain important information, sometimes not yet recorded on Explore the Collections. This might range from the purchase price to details of the person or organisation who gave or sold it to the museum. Information like this is crucial for provenance research: to understand the whole life of an object. Some register entries contain disappointingly scant information about an object.
Separately to the V&A's files on its objects, the museum also holds 60,000 files grouped by the name of an individual or institution with whom it has interacted. The information preserved in these files is very varied, ranging from extensive correspondence to a single business card. Also typically included in these files are conversations between curators, external specialists and directors. These conversations are often detailed statements on why the object was considered significant or, at times, fierce deliberations about whether said object should be acquired by the museum. The records provide a tantalising insight into historic expertise and personalities. They also reveal the changing tastes for different objects. These files rarely directly reveal biographical information about an individual vendor, but business cards and correspondence addresses that are retained can provide alternative avenues for research.
Putting stories to names
Of the 300 vendors of East Asian material recorded in the archive files for the period 1852 – 1912, most sold only one object to the V&A. Despite major bulk purchases from dealers such as S.M. Franck, the V&A's acquisition of East Asian material culture drew from a wide variety of sources, many based in London – and many of whom are not career dealers. Among known specialist sellers and organisations in this group, it seems that booksellers sold many items beyond their usual remit, such as ceramics. The V&A also purchased from dock companies, makers of scientific equipment and department stores.
These ad hoc purchases from individuals speak volumes about the nature of collecting at the genesis of the museum. For example, Mr Eida Suburo, previously identified only as 'S. Eida' in V&A's documentation, appeared to have only briefly traded in Japanese material culture before developing a business importing bonsai trees. Did he consider himself a minor dealer? Should we?
Other relationships are detailed. While in Japan, Mr Inada Hogitaro purchased items requested by museum staff. He also actively sought other pieces he thought the museum would be interested in, almost acting on behalf of the museum. This means Mr. Inada was an agent, like Dr. Stephen Wootton Bushell and Major-General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith, who were tasked by museum staff with making specific purchases to enrich the museum's Chinese and Iranian collections respectively.
This kind of research invites us to consider absences and interconnections. In 1911 Mr Gunji Koizumi wrote to the V&A, offering to sell what he described as a suit of 300-year-old Chinese armour. Museum staff instead identified it as a suit of Korean armour, of roughly 150 years old – and declined to purchase it. While the armour is not in the V&A's holdings today, all of these considerations, and an intricate drawing of the armour are preserved in Mr. Koizumi's file in the archives. Had the museum chosen to purchase the armour, it would have joined an incense burner (also sold by Mr Koizumi) as two of the earliest Korean objects to be acquired by the V&A. As well as being a renowned judo master, Mr Koizumi also restored Japanese lacquer and later offered his services to the V&A as a 'conservator', an offer that was also turned down by the museum.
While Mr Inada and Mr Koizumi both undertook translating and consulting work for the V&A, they evidently had very different experiences as vendors to the museum. Interestingly, Mr Koizumi's skills in lacquer-work can be seen in a mirror in the Furniture and Woodwork Collection today – outside the remit of the Asia Department.
It is inevitable that the documents we have now raise complex questions. Negretti & Zambra manufactured meteorological instruments and supplied photographic equipment. The company commissioned photographers, such as Mr Pierre Rossier, who travelled to, and documented, countries in East Asia. Some of the negatives of Mr Rossier's photographs are in the Photography collection in the V&A today. Could this be a reason why Mr Negretti and Mr Zambra were able to offer to the V&A 'parts of the architecture of some ancient [Japanese] Temple which has been destroyed by fire' that was in their possession in 1872 (and weighed 11 tonnes)? The exact connections between the company and East Asia remain to be determined. The museum did not commit to this huge purchase, though they did purchase a bell from Negretti & Zambra as it 'might not only be interesting as an art object, but might be made useful at the Department to mark certain hours'.
The vendors who sold East Asian objects to the V&A between 1852 and 1911 were connected to an art market awash with East Asian material culture that arrived in Britain through trade, international exhibitions, foreign travel, military campaigns and many other means. They had diverse and obscure links with East Asia that often extend far beyond the actual vendor themselves.
Building an understanding of vendors linked to the East Asia collection sheds light on the history of both the museum and its objects and importantly, it also ties into the broader provenance research being carried out in, and beyond, the V&A itself. To that end, the known acquisition information of approximately 43,000 East Asian objects collected by the V&A between 1852 – 1912, gleaned from the Acquisition Registers in the Asia Department will be added to the museum's electronic database and made available via Explore the Collections. Alongside the wealth of physical resources available in the V&A, this newly digitised information will aid in tracing the complex story of the trade and transportation of East Asian material culture across the globe.