General Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864-1935)

Collecting Chinese Art for American Museums

Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe was a Norwegian cadet in the cavalry training of Officer Cadet School in Bergen, the precursor of the Norwegian Military Academy, who moved to China at the age of 24 in 1886. One year later he joined the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, where he served until 1902. He later became a military adviser and a personal friend to General Yuan Shikai (1859-1916). After spending more than fifty years in China working for the Chinese Republican military and various government institutions, he died in 1935 at age 71 in his house Beijing. His biographer Jorunn Hakestad describes Munthe in his last years as “a religious vegetarian who spent his afternoons singing hymns and reading poetry, including the many brief verses he himself had composed over the years.”[1]

Johan Munthe

Letter from Munthe to Gertrude Bass Warner, April 11, 1931

Letter from Munthe to Gertrude Bass Warner, May 10, 1933

Letter from Munthe to Gertrude Bass Warner, June 12, 1933

This was not how Munthe started his life in China. Intrigued by his uncle, Iver Munthe Daae (1845-1924), who had entered the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service and had returned to Norway in 1888 with a large collection of Chinese art, Johan Munthe had left Bergen Military Academy, which had offered him the best education he could access below the university level. Until 1905, Norway and Sweden formed a dual monarchy ruled by King Oscar II (1829-1907; r. 1872-1907). For Munthe there was no advancement in a military career since there was no national army.[2] Therefore Munthe decided to sail to China and emulate his uncle’s footsteps. Like Iver Munthe Daae, who had collected artworks in China and sold them to Norwegian museums at a substantial profit, Johan sought to develop his skill as a connoisseur of Chinese art. Yet he became so fascinated by the art that he only sold pieces from his collection when he hit hard times, similar to those Chinese collectors who in dire straits had sold their precious possessions to him. Early in his employment in China, Munthe began to set aside 20 Mexican silver dollars of his salary each month to start his own art collection.[3] He also studied the Chinese language, which garnered the trust of the Chinese politicians with whom he worked throughout his life.


Life in China

As a consequence of the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), China was forced to open several ports along the coast and the Yangzi River to foreign merchants. To supervise trade activities and in the pursuit of modernizing its civil service administration (next to the education system, the military, infrastructure, and the banking system) the Imperial Customs Service under Inspector General Sir Robert Hart (1835-1911) set up a recruitment office in London to hire qualified Europeans who could be entrusted to handle customs affairs for the Qing government. The treaties following the Opium Wars opened China to a substantial community of foreign expatriates: the largest groups consisted of Christian missionaries of various denominations, railway engineers, merchants and investment bankers, as well as the foreign Customs service officials. Many of these foreigners brought their families. In addition, there were adventurers, sinologists, mercenaries, and wealthy tourists who explored the “Orient,” comprising the most diverse contingent of non-Asian foreigners in Chinese history. The Customs service had “indoor” office positions and “outdoor” inspection positions on coastguard cruisers with cannons, which prevented piracy and collected port fees.[4] Munthe first served “outdoors” for the Customs office in Ningbo, before he was transferred to Shanghai.

In 1894 he was given a leave of absence to join the Chinese army under Yuan Shikai in the Sino-Japanese War. Yuan Shikai recognized Munthe’s capabilities and recruited him for his own army, where he ultimately attained the rank of general, after having joined the defense forces in Beijing that protected foreigners in the Legation Quarters during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion (a translation of “Fighters of the Yihequan ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fists’ Martial Arts Association”). In 1901 Munthe returned briefly to Norway for a family visit. His mother was seriously ill and ultimately died in October 1902. Upon his return to China in the same year, Munthe was made chief of military staff under Yuan Shikai, then the Viceroy of Zhili province (i.e., Hebei and Henan provinces).[5] Munthe settled with his wife Gina Arentz Nielsen in Tianjin. The couple had married while Munthe visited Bergen.[6] Both soon became fascinated with the new American religious movement of Christian Science (based on the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, 1829-1910), which they joined while in Tianjin. Their shared religious convictions contributed to the friendship between the Munthes and University of Oregon Museum founder Gertrude Bass Warner (1863-1951), who was also a Christian Scientist. Many years later (on October 19, 1930), while making plans to visit the United States to sell his collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he wrote a letter to Warner, describing his enthusiasm at the prospect of learning about Christian Science in the country of its origin: “As I have told you before, once in America, I shall communicate with you at once and we shall do all we can in Christian Science together, and after that the Museum.”[7]

A devastating fire later destroyed the Munthe home in Tianjin, and after the fall of the Qing in 1911, the couple moved to a courtyard house Munthe had built in a Beijing alley (hutong), outside of the Legation Quarter, where they lived until Gina’s untimely death in 1916—the same year that Munthe’s employer, Yuan Shikai, died unexpectedly. Munthe lived in that house for the rest of his life. In 1918, two years after becoming a widower, Munthe remarried. His second wife, Alexandra Grantham (1867-1945)[8] was a scion of German nobility[9] and the widow of a British officer, Frederick W. Grantham (1871?-1915). Alexandra Grantham was also a follower of Christian Science.[10] When Munthe began to acquire Chinese art for Gertrude Bass Warner, she also met Alexandra and the ladies exchanged friendly letters. During the last five years of Munthe’s life the couple lived separately. In 1932, when the political situation in China became ever more complex, Alexandra and her son Godfrey took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Berlin, where he attended art school for one year. Then mother and son moved to London, where Alexandra died in 1945.


Building a collection

The art adviser/dealer-collector connection between Munthe and Warner lasted for a decade, beginning in 1923. Munthe can be identified as the source of the following objects in Gertrude Bass Warner’s collection:

The first shipment containing a single stone sculpture was made in 1923.[12] In 1924, Munthe sent a piece of metalwork,[13] in the following year a shipment of ceramic tiles[14] connected with Munthe. The collection’s object file documents show a larger group of objects shipped to Warner labeled as “1925-1926,” including glass vases,[15] ivory combs,[16] furniture,[17] and ceramic vessels.[18] There was only one shipment in 1927, a tapestry.[19] In 1928 another group of objects was shipped, which included glass vases,[20] jade objects,[21] metalwork,[22] lacquered objects,[23] ceramic vessels,[24] and a painting.[25] One ceramic vessel remains without a defined year of shipment.[26] Receiving export authorization for antiquities and artworks became more difficult in 1930. A letter dated April 11, 1931, from Munthe to Warner states that “The Chinese Government has prohibited the export of art books and manuscripts, all sculptures and bronzes. It is but a time when paintings and porcelains also will be forbidden [to export]. All imperial things are forbidden…”[27]

In 1926, Munthe sold the remainder of his collection. Since 1907, while economically well situated, he had sent objects as donations to the museum in his hometown, Bergen. Later he had sold objects to sustain himself. In 1926 he offered the remaining ca. 400 objects of the collection, which Munthe valued at a total of one million US dollars to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Because he needed the money, Munthe offered the museum through a middleman named Erwin Furman a discount of $400,000, which was gladly accepted by the museum director, the ornithologist William A. Bryan. Based on a catalogue with photographs and without further consultation of specialists, Bryan had the pieces shipped from Beijing to Los Angeles for approval. When the first part of the collection arrived, Furman brought Berthold Laufer (1874-1934), a trained sinologist and the curator of Asian Ethnology in the Anthropology Department of the Field Museum in Chicago to Los Angeles. Three years earlier, in 1923, Laufer had seen the collection while in Beijing. He now flew to Los Angeles where he spent three days appraising the individual pieces and in his report confirmed their value and authenticity. The board originally gave consent to acquire the collection, but then with changes among its members, the promise of county funds earmarked for the acquisition was retracted in order to facilitate the construction of a county hospital, which “was considered more important than anything else.”[28]

Gertrude Bass Warner travelled to Los Angeles in June 1929 to see the collection. On June 29 she sent Munthe her report as well as the catalogue composed by Furman, which she annotated for Munthe where Furman’s description was erroneous. Her judgment is excoriating: “That sort of thing makes Mr. Furman a very poor medium through which to dispose of your collection; added to which, I do not believe that he has had any opportunity to make a scholarly study of Chinese Painting or to make himself an authority. It seemed to me that he was trying to ‘show off’ and we all know that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’ When he began to question the authenticity of the paintings, or the authenticity of the catalogue he was doing something which would, in my opinion, undermine the value, authenticity and desirability of the collection—a thing he had no right to do, in my opinion.”[29]

In 1930 the museum bought 118 ceramics for $200,000. Munthe consented to the option that LACMA may acquire the rest of the collection for an additional amount of $400,000. The objects were on display until 1940. During this decade, other specialists (and some who claimed such title for themselves) went to see it. Their evaluations were as diverse as imaginable, culminating in the scathing judgment by Alfred Salmony (1890-1958), art historian at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts (and like Laufer a German immigrant), that the collection was a ”farrago of copies, forgeries, and tourist bric-a-brac.”[30] The further payment was declined and a report composed in 1940 by the museum director, Roland McKinney, came to the conclusion that “the collection is of such doubtful authenticity as to be unworthy of exhibition in this museum.”[31] In the last years of his life Munthe was in financial difficulties. The Chinese government could not always pay his salary, and he could not sell art. In the Depression years there were sellers but no buyers for art. “The Government owes me plenty,” he wrote, “admits it, promises to pay and then simply declares it has no money. I had tried before I wrote to you to get them to pay me at least enough to live upon, month for month, but they could not manage it. All the money they can lay their hands on goes to and for the war. The Banks (foreign) will only advance limited loans on property, and as for foreigners, outside of missionary bodies, cannot buy or hold property in Peking, the Banks cannot legally hold or loan anything on Chinese title-deeds. As you can readily imagine, it has not been, it is not a pleasant position in which I find myself placed.”[32] Munthe, who in the previous winter was bedridden for two months, survived through the help of friends, among them Gertrude Bass Warner, who sent him money as best as they could. He ends his letter to her with words of gratitude: “I am so grateful for your friendship, I feel I can speak to you as to nobody else. I always feel you are such a fine loyal friend.”[33]

Munthe died two years later, almost to the day. He was buried in the Racecourse Road cemetery in Tianjin, long since destroyed.

LACMA lent some of the pieces of his collection to Scripps College until in the 1960s the entire collection was sent to the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art, KODE 1, in Bergen, Munthe’s hometown. Including previous donations that he had made over the years, the collection consisted of around 2,500 objects. Some of the pieces Munthe had collected must have had material and/or patriotic value. In a Chinese art market where prices have been driven into the stratosphere by nationalism and patriotism, Munthe’s collection made headlines on December 19, 2010, the day after masked intruders broke into the museum and stole 56 Chinese objects out of three display cases. Three years later, on January 5, 2013, the museum’s security system was set off by another break-in and filmed three masked men as they smashed display cases and stole 22 jade and porcelain objects, which they put into boxes apparently custom-made to hold them. Within ninety seconds the thieves had left the building. Eventually, they were caught and served prison sentences, but the objects have never surfaced. Many other European museums suffered professional art thefts over the ensuing years, following a similar pattern.[34] It has never been revealed who commissioned the break-ins. And so, as Munthe’s biographer aptly summarized, the irony remains that Chinese objects once sold in despair, later exported through a functioning Customs system adopted by the Chinese state for its reliability or robbed by colonialists (as certain cases defy other interpretation),[35] then preserved and displayed in foreign museums, were forcefully stolen and have now disappeared once and for all.



[1] Jorunn Haakestad, Porcelain and Revolution. Johan Munthe and the Chinese Collection in Bergen, Norway. Bergen: Vigmostad & Bjørke AS 2018, 11.

[2] Haakestad (2018), 18.

[3] Haakestad (2018), 25.

[4] Haakestad (2018), 22.

[5] Munthe would not return again to Norway before 1907, when he married Georgina (= Gina) Arentz, divorced Nielsen. During this visit he also made his first donation of what would eventually become more than 2,000 objects of Chinese art to the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art in Bergen Museum under director, Johan Bøgh, a good friend of Munthe. Haakestad (2018), 40-44.

[6] It is not quite clear when the two had first met, but Gina’s first husband, Randolph Nielsen successfully claimed custody for their 11-year old daughter, Aslaug. Haakestad (2018), 43.

[7] Gertrude Bass Warner papers, Box 05, Folder 06, pp. 79-82. His visit to the United States turned into “a nightmare”, as he describes it (letter to Warner dated June 2, 1932), due to difficulties in selling his collection. (See the letter exchange between Warner and Munthe about contradictions in the promises made by representatives of LACMA. Letter from Warner to Munthe (June 29,1929), Letters from Munthe to Warner: December 6, 1928; June 7, 1929; June 25, 1930; December 22,1930; December 1, 1931; Gertrude Bass Warner papers, Box 05, Folder 06.

[8] Alexandra Etheldreda Emily Marie Sylvia von Herder.

[9] One of her sons, Alexander Grantham (1899-1978), became governor of Fiji and the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific (1945-47) before serving as the governor of Hong Kong (1947-57).

[10] Eddy explained her conviction that sickness is an expression of an imbalance of magnetic fields in the body. A combination of Christian theology, philosophical ideas and medical theories, she called her doctrine ‘Christian Science’ and published it in a book titled Science and Health, first published in print in 1934.

[11] This list was originally composed by JSMA intern Caitlin N. Stacy in July 2015. She also coordinated the objects with the years when Munthe sent from China to Eugene.

[12] MWCH11:1. Dept. of Collections Management. Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Eugene, Oregon.

[13] MWCH6:37.

[14] MWCH14:1-17, 20-39.

[15] MWCH3:5, 6, 7.

[16] MWCH10:1-6.

[17] MWCH13:3-5.

[18] MWCH22:2, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16; MWCH23:15, 16, 33, 89; and MWCH26:10, 11.

[19] MWCH43:6.

[20] MWCH3:46, 47.

[21] MWCH4:52, 56, 57, 58.

[22] MWCH6:40-44, 58, 59.

[23] MWCH8:1, 9.

[24] MWCH23:30, 31.

[25] MWCH32:L12.

[26] MWCH22:21.

[28] Munthe in his letter dated June 7, 1929 to Gertrude Bass Warner. Gertrude Bass Warner papers, Box 05, Folder 06, pp. 39-44.

[30] Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, The China Collectors. America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures. New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2015, 264. Interestingly, Meyer and Brysac give Laufer little credit as an appraiser of art. That was quite different during his lifetime, when he was charged with evaluating collections like the desk set made by a Mongolian prince for emperor Qianlong, displayed in New York in 1929. It seems as if the authors got caught in the factionalism of the times they chronicled.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Letter by Munthe to Gertrude Bass Warner, dated May 10, 1933. Gertrude Bass Warner papers, Box 05, Folder 06, pp. 149-52.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Haakestad (2018), 7, 238-240.

[35] Among the pieces Munthe had shipped to Norway were 21 marble column plinths of the Old Imperial Summer Palace Yuan Ming Yuan near Beijing, which was destroyed by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. Seven of the columns were recently returned to Beijing University on permanent loan in an agreement brokered between KODE, Beijing University and Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group represented by Huang Nubo in December 2013. The agreement stipulates a research cooperation between KODE museum and Beijing University supported by Huang, who has also pledged to donate 10 Mio. NGK (ca. US$ 1.6 mil.) to KODE. The donation is designated for the restoration of the China Exhibits Hall. (The Norway Post, December 4, 2016. and Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 02/19/2014. retrieved September 24, 2018).

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