Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures, has just sent me a link to a story in the Daily Telegraph about a museum in China that has been exhibiting fake antiquities.
This reminds me of the story of a little-known Manchester scandal involving a collection of Chinese artefacts about which great claims were made during the 1920s. The owner of the collection, John Hilditch, was the auditor for the Manchester City Council. He cultivated what can only be described as an affectation as a lover of all things Chinese. Hilditch had a ‘museum’ of Chinese objects at his home in Manchester, complete with a temple at which he would conduct services in priestly attire and burn incense.
He claimed to have spent time in China and to have had some hair-raising adventures during his pursuit of antiquities that come straight out of the Indiana Jones school of archaeological fieldwork. On one occasion, for example, he claimed to have been buried upto his neck after souvenir-hunting on an ancient burial ground, from which predicament he was only rescued when his devoted Chinese man servant came back for him. However, there was no independent corroboration that he had ever spent time in China. Hilditch liked to tell people that he was as inscrutable as a Chinese Mandarin and that however much they tried to find out about him they would never succeed.
On one occasion he appears to have arranged for some students to pretend to be a formal Chinese diplomatic delegation on an official visit to Manchester City Council. They were given a civic welcome and treated with great courtesy. The imposters were almost rumbled when they happened to cross paths with some bona fide Chinese visitors. They narrowly avoided being unmasked and Hilditch only later revealed that this was a stunt.
It is not clear what motivated a relatively high-ranking member of the local authority to behave in this way. He apparently had had a disagreement with the Manchester Art Gallery over his Chinese collection. He rated it very highly but curators were sceptical. They must have had the last laugh because despite Hilditch’s exaggerated claims about its value, when the collection came up for auction it raised only a tiny fraction of the supposed amount of money it was worth.
Was Hilditch a Sinophile who let his enthusiasm for China run away with him or was he a phantasist? Perhaps someone out there can shed some light on this intriguing story….