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The Dowager Empress Cixi's comb: A provenance treasure hunt

The Dowager Empress Cixi's comb: A provenance treasure hunt

By Jane Groufsky
FRI, 12 Feb 2016

The digitisation and sharing of Auckland Museum's collection initiated an international treasure hunt for the story of the Dowager Empress Cixi's comb.

Hair comb, circa 1898, China. Gift of Violet Dickinson, 1943.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Z133.

Research in a digital era

Some objects join the Museum collection with rich and interesting backstories; ideal for interpretation and exhibition storytelling. Other objects are collected as an example of 'type'. A beautiful 1920s beaded dress may be evocative of its era, but the story of the woman who wore it is unknown.

When an object and its provenance information have been disconnected, it can be difficult to retrace the story. But as cultural institutions and organisations digitise and share their resources, it becomes possible to piece together the history of an object without even entering the museum.

An intriguing entry

In June 2015, Auckland Museum shared our collection online, allowing visitors to access more than one million catalogue records. The following month, the Museum's Applied Arts and Design department was contacted by Linus Fan, an independent researcher based in the United States.

Mr Fan is a dedicated sleuth of objects relating to the formidable Dowager Empress Cixi who, in effect, ruled China for nearly five decades of the late Qing Dynasty. Mr Fan was intrigued by an entry in the Museum's online collection for: "Z133: comb, hair. Gifted to Lady MacDonald in 1900 at Peking by the Dowager Empress, Tzu Hsi".

Could this story be verified? And if so, how did a comb from one of the most notable empresses in Chinese history end up in a museum in New Zealand?

Looking for clues

It is known that Lady MacDonald, wife of British diplomat Sir Claude MacDonald, met with the Dowager Empress in Beijing with five other foreign women in December 1898. In a full report of the meeting in the Sydney Morning Herald (8 July 1901), Lady MacDonald described the Dowager Empress as: "a young-looking woman with jet black hair and kindly dark eyes; in repose her expression is stern, but when she smiles it lights up and all traces of severity disappear."

Lady MacDonald goes on to detail the official reception and activities with the ladies of the palace. She notes that a gift of "boxes containing combs made of ivory and of different sizes and shapes" were presented to each of the visitors. Despite the slight discrepancy in date, this suggests that the comb in our collection could be from this very box.

The Museum's own records regarding the comb were slim, but we were able to confirm to Mr Fan that it was gifted to Auckland Museum by Miss Violet Dickinson of Burnham Wood, England, in 1944. Initial research showed that Miss Dickinson was a close friend of Virginia Woolf, and a relative of George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland – for whom the city was named.

A further clue came from Fourteen Years of Diplomatic Life in Japan, extracts from the diary written by Baroness Albert d'Anethan, wife of a Belgian Minister. In the entry dated 23 September 1905, the author describes a dinner at the British Legion in Tokyo which included a "Miss Dickinson, a friend of Lady Robert Cecil's. She stands 6 feet 3 inches in her shoes, and when a little Japanese tailor measured her for a gown, she quaintly suggested the use of a ladder".

Shipping logs from the Japan Daily Mail confirm the arrival of a Lady V. Dickinson into Tokyo in 1905 - coinciding with Sir Claude MacDonald's post as British Ambassador to Japan. This suggests that the comb was gifted to Miss Dickinson by Lady MacDonald at this time.

The final piece of the puzzle

Just one question remained: how did the comb make its way into the Auckland Museum collection?

Was Miss Dickinson's family connection to Lord Auckland the reason she gifted the comb to Auckland Museum? Early copies of the Auckland Institute and Museum Annual Report listed significant acquisitions, and in the 1943-1944 report, scanned and published on the Museum website, Mr Fan found specific reference to Chinese objects brought back from England by Captain Humphreys-Davies to Auckland as gifts from Violet Dickinson.

George Humphreys-Davies, the Museum's honorary Asian curator at the time, donated 354 objects to the Museum, sourced through his wide network of collectors and curators. With this final connection, we were able to go to our institutional archive and search through Humphreys-Davies' correspondence for any reference to Violet Dickinson.

Two of the letters in the Captain Humphrey-Davies correspondence file.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. MUS-95-43 Correspondence H.

Here, we found a goldmine. Our records co-ordinator uncovered a series of letters between Miss Dickinson and Captain Humphreys-Davies that unequivocally corroborated the story that Mr Fan had pieced together through his research. In Miss Dickinson's own handwritten words was the story of the comb:

I'll send the Chinese little things. In 1905, I went with Lord and Lady Cecil (of Chelwood) to Japan; we stayed with Sir Claude and Lady MacDonald there. Lady MacDonald gave me this present given to her in 1900 after the siege of Peking by the old Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. The MacDonalds were at Peking then and then later went to Tokyo; they had lovely Chinese treasures.

Miss Dickinson also confirmed the Lord Auckland link, including in her letter a list of family members.

Connecting the dots

Although the elements of the comb's provenance already existed in the Museum and online, it took some investigation and time to connect the dots. In Mr Fan's own words: "Years of chasing the empress's relics, such a rewarding outcome is akin to finding the needle in a haystack". Through the use of digitised resources and with the help of museum staff, our researcher was able to reunite this object with its history, and breathe life into a small, painted comb.


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  • Post by: Jane Groufsky

    Jane Groufsky is the Associate Curator Applied Arts & Design. She has an interest in printing and patternmaking techniques in textiles.