Even in a city brimming with an embarrassment of architectural riches, the Pagoda Paris is a striking stand-out. Jaw-droppingly remarkable both inside and out, the landmark becomes even more alluring when you consider the life of the man responsible for its creation, the enduringly mysterious, persistently controversial and completely self-made Ching Tsai Loo (aka C.T. Loo), the 20th century’s pre-eminent dealer in ancient Chinese art.
By introducing important early Chinese artifacts – jade, bronze, statuary – to the West, C. T. Loo (1880-1957) is credited with nothing less than educating Westerners about Chinese antiquity. Until then, collectors had been primarily familiar with the blue and white ceramics of the Qing dynasty (1644-1922), China’s last. This left out thousands of years of history and periods during which China’s most significant works were created.
Accordingly, Loo became instrumental in advising and acquiring objects for many prominent private and institutional collections including those of J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Alfred Pillsbury, Henry Clay Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art among others. For this, he is considered both a villain and a hero. Was he a ransacker or a savior of Chinese national patrimony? Opinion is bitterly divided, but one thing remains certain – this man of outsized ambitions, the orphaned son of Chinese peasants – became an art world giant with a lasting legacy.
With its crimson tiered exterior, jade-green roof tiles, Chinese gargoyles and latticework windows painted an imperial yellow, the Pagoda Paris unabashedly proclaims its exoticism amidst the limestone Haussman-era façades of its bourgeois neighbors in Paris’ stately 8th arrondissement. Upon its purchase in 1925, what began life as a hôtel particulier in the Louis-Philippe style, was transformed at Loo’s direction into
its present flamboyant incarnation by noted French architect Fernand Bloch.
This architectural exclamation point rose over vehement local opposition, going on to house the dealer’s family and gallery, C.T. Loo et Cie, for nearly a century. In 2010, after a period of decline, a private investor who had been enamored of the building came to the rescue by purchasing it from Loo’s heirs.
Today, the gallery’s role as a cultural center – as a bridge between East and West – has been resurrected by the Pagoda’s director, Jacqueline Baroness von Hammerstein-Loxten who, after presiding over a loving and meticulous restoration, organizes art exhibits, lectures and private events in its sumptuous interiors.
To step inside the Pagoda is to be transported to another impossibly exotic time and place. Arched doorways beckon visitors into elegant jewel-toned salons. Richly carved crouching dragons stand guard on stairs that lead to rooms lined with 16th and 17th century lacquered panels which are virtually priceless. “My insurance company had a difficult time putting a value on them because nothing like this exists – not in China, not in the West – in terms of quality and quantity. It would be impossible to reproduce these rooms today,” says the baroness.
There are art deco glass ceilings laden with Chinese characters and a wood-paneled elevator. Through the opium haze lingering in the imagination, one floats through different worlds. There’s the Salle Indienne, the Salle Cavaliers and the Petit Salon Porcelaine. Once upon a time, these evocative rooms were filled with Chinese and Far Eastern treasures – paintings, porcelain, furniture, ancient jade and Buddhist statuary – spanning numerous centuries. Many of the items brought by Loo to Europe and the US through the gallery he had established in New York, are among the jewels in the crown of museum collections. Some are worth millions of dollars. Others are priceless.
A number of these museums, however, may have to relinquish their prized possessions on account of their suspect provenance.
The Smithsonian, for instance, discovered that one of the pieces bought from Loo, a 3,000-year-old bronze vessel, had been seized by the Nazis from the Oppenheimer family. But when Loo sold it to the Freer Gallery in 1938, he claimed that he had brought it directly from China.
The provenance of various items that Loo did bring from his native country is in question too. When China became a republic in 1911, imperial objects which had been sacred for millennia were suddenly up for grabs and Loo lost no time in acquiring them from temples, mausoleums, the imperial palace and private collections, always in search of the best of the best.
His ambitious treasure hunting would go on for another 40 years. Consequently, to many Chinese, he is a villain, responsible for depleting their country’s cultural heritage.
But to others, including his family, he was a great man who not only educated an entire generation of Western collectors about Chinese antiquity, but who also saved it from destruction, particularly that brought on by Mao Zedong’s decade-long Cultural Revolution begun in 1966. The frenzied vandalism of this period was principally aimed at the religious temples from which Loo obtained many of his finest pieces.
His defenders also point to his generosity. “He would often lend pieces to museums at his own expense,” remarks Jacqueline. He donated many works, and for collectors who couldn’t afford his things, he put financing schemes into place. “These are not the actions of a greedy man,” she says. “He wanted to educate.”
And what of Loo’s own provenance? In the vein of many successful entrepreneurs who lived in more class conscious times, Loo’s extremely modest start in life is something the dealer had tried to obfuscate. The future antiquarian was born Lu Huanwen in a village 200 miles west of Shanghai to an opium addict father and a field worker mother, both of whom died when he was a child.
Taken in by distant relatives, Loo lived a meager village existence until 1902 when he boarded a ship bound for Paris, working as a cook for the son of a wealthy merchant family. In Paris, Loo’s master set up shop importing Chinese silk, carpets, porcelain and the like and Loo quickly worked his way up from servant to shop assistant. He just as quickly shed his Chinese robes, long braid and name becoming, by 1928, the year the Pagoda opened its doors, the more grandiosely-named Lu Qin Zhai and eventually C. T. Loo.
As with his beginnings, the dealer’s love life is sheathed in mystery too. An unverified but oft-repeated tale taken from a novelized account of his life maintains that the dealer’s long-time love was Olga Hortense Libmond, a milliner four years his junior. According to the story, the feeling was mutual, but Olga’s loyalty to her benefactor, an older man who had set her up in business, prevented her from marrying Loo. Not wanting to lose either man, Olga proposed that Loo marry her 15-year-old daughter instead. “Not true!” declares Jacqueline. “In the hundreds of affection-filled letters to his wife and daughters, there is no evidence whatsoever that C. T. Loo had a romantic relationship with his mother-in-law.”
It was to one of his daughters, Janine Loo, that management of the gallery fell after the dealer’s retirement in the late 1940s. By then, China was under the control of a new Communist government which cut Loo off from his sources.
Filling the Pagoda with art and artifacts in the ensuing years became increasingly difficult. Enter the determined 21st century private buyer who was not put off by the complex purchase negotiations and Jacqueline, whose palpable passion for the Pagoda only grows with time.
Today, the Pagoda’s place at a cultural crossroads remains intact not least of all because next year, the baroness aims to inaugurate Asia Week Paris. The subsequent gathering of international art galleries and antique dealers within its walls will undoubtedly enhance the Pagoda’s century-long role as a nexus between East and West, as a place of wonder and enlightenment in the City of Light.