Reflections PHOTO: Bruce M. White, courtesy of the Cotsen Collection

History's reflections

The Huntington's exclusive US exhibit of the Lloyd Cotsen Chinese bronze mirror collection covers 3,000 years of history By Jana J. Monji

By Jana J. Monji 12/08/2011

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At an auction decades ago, Lloyd Cotsen became enchanted with ancient Chinese mirrors. Bidding on 12 of them, against the king of Sweden in 1950, Cotsen won four. From that beginning, he amassed bronze mirrors that would end up spanning 3,000 years of history. The exhibit of this important collection, “Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection,” opened Nov. 12 at Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanic Gardens’ Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries.
These 95 Chinese bronze mirrors are on display at the Huntington until May, when they will be whisked away to Shanghai. In fact, this is the only exhibition of this fine collection in the United States before it becomes part of the Shanghai Museum collection.
Cotsen was and is a serial collector, according to Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanic Gardens. He “began as a young person collecting matchbooks” and progressed to more expensive things but had a very unusual collecting pattern. “He would engage scholars in his collecting process, resulting in a distinctive contribution to our historical understanding,” Koblik says.
Cotsen strongly believed in returning artifacts to the countries of their origin. Kelun Chen, the deputy director of the Shanghai Museum, was present at a news conference to officially receive the gift now on display, which “runs through every period” of Chinese history,” according to one of the exhibit’s press clippings.
Scholars and metalsmiths will be intrigued by the advances in technology displayed in the items. According to the Suzanne Cahill, history professor at UC San Diego, the mirrors were cast using clay molds, although some show evidence of lost wax casting originating west of China. 
Some of the mirrors are soldered together with the bottom part made of a bronze alloy containing tin to make it more reflective. In most cases, the mirror backs are on display so people won’t be able to see the polished front. Some of the specimens are unusual, with inlaid glass and turquoise and granulation. All are beautiful.
The patinas on the mirrors are mostly natural corrosion, but the exhibit also features a few fake artifacts, where the patina was artificially applied or controlled chemical coloration or modern rubber mold casting was used. 

“Ancient Chinese Bronze Mirrors from the Lloyd Chosen Collection” continues until May 14 in the Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanic Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. For more information, call (626) 405-2100 or visit


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