Au­thor­i­ties hot on trail of miss­ing cul­tural relics

Chi­nese study es­ti­mates up to 10 mil­lion ar­ti­facts from China scat­tered world­wide

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By WANG KAIHAO in Bei­jing wangkai­hao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Bei­jing has stepped up ef­forts to stop the sale of il­le­gally ob­tained Chi­nese cul­tural relics by auc­tion houses, col­lec­tors and mu­se­ums.

In the lat­est case, Yoko­hama In­ter­na­tional Auc­tion, in Ja­pan, was in­formed by China’s State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage on Oct 21 that sev­eral Tang Dy­nasty (618-907) fres­coes and manuscripts of Bud­dhist su­tras about to go under the ham­mer were stolen from China in the past cen­tury.

The auc­tion house, founded by a Ja­panese citizen with Chi­nese an­ces­try, can­celed the sale. The move was a step in the right di­rec­tion— no profit was­made— but their re­turn to the uniden­ti­fied client shows stronger in­ter­na­tional rules are needed.

A new Chi­nese reg­u­la­tion, re­leased a day ear­lier, bans the auc­tion of stolen, smug­gled or looted relics. It is aimed es­pe­cially at keep­ing such relics in China, but it also can be cited as a guide­line when deal­ing with other coun­tries and re­gions.

Since 1989, China has been part of sev­eral in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions to pre­vent the trade in stolen relics.

“We will main­tain the right of repa­tri­a­tion if any item is con­firmed to have been il­le­gally taken

abroad,” the cul­tural her­itage ad­min­is­tra­tion said in a state­ment to China Daily.

One ex­am­ple would be the fres­coes that were to be auc­tioned in Ja­pan, which are from Dun­huang, in Gansu prov­ince. They were stolen by Otani Kozui, a Ja­panese ab­bot who was part of ex­pe­di­tions to China be­tween 1902 and 1913, of­fi­cials said.

There is rea­son for en­cour­age­ment, ac­cord­ing to Huo Zhengxin, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional law at China Univer­sity of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence and Law.

World­wide, many guide­lines also have been is­sued to push col­lec­tors to pay more at­ten­tion to the ori­gin of cul­tural relics. “The le­gal cir­cum­stances are get­ting bet­ter,” Huo said.

A study by UNESCO shows there are at least 1.64 mil­lion sets of Chi­nese cul­tural relics scat­tered across 200 mu­se­ums in other coun­tries and re­gions. The China Cul­tural Relics Acad­emy, an aca­demic or­ga­ni­za­tion, es­ti­mates the num­ber would be 10 mil­lion if pri­vate col­lec­tions were counted.

Many such trea­sures were looted dur­ing wars and other un­rest in China from the late 19th cen­tury to the early 20th cen­tury. Large-scale theft oc­curred in the 1990s be­cause of the boom in in­ter­na­tional mar­ket de­mand.

In 2013, French busi­ness­man Fran­cois-Henri Pin­ault do­nated the bronze heads of a rab­bit and a rat to China. They had been robbed by Bri­tish and French forces from the Old Sum­mer Palace in Bei­jing dur­ing the Sec­ond Opium War (1856-1860).

In 2014, China drafted an in­ter­na­tional rule on the re­turn of cul­tural prop­erty— China’s first such ef­fort. The Dun­huang Rec­om­men­da­tion has led to more suc­cess in China’s ef­forts since then.

In July 2015, 32 gold or­na­ments made of gold foil from the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770-476 BC) were re­turned to Gansu prov­ince. They had been il­le­gally ex­ca­vated there in the 1990s. French col­lec­tors Fran­cois Pin­ault, Fran­cois-Henri Pin­ault’s fa­ther, and Chris­tian Dey­dier ob­tained the or­na­ments and do­nated them to the Guimet Mu­seum in Paris. But the do­na­tion was halted and the or­na­ments were re­turned to China.

In Fe­bru­ary, Hs­ing Yun, the ab­bot of Fo Guang Shan Bud­dhist tem­ple in Tai­wan, re­turned a stolen Bud­dha head to the main­land. The ar­ti­fact was taken from Youju Tem­ple in He­bei prov­ince in 1996. It was do­nated to Fo Guang Shan by a Tai­wan busi­ness­man.

The ab­bot, then 89, es­corted the 1,500-year-old Bud­dha head, and it is now dis­played at the He­bei Mu­seum. China’s main­land has been the vic­tim of many relic thefts in the last cen­tury, the ab­bot said at the time.

Diplo­matic chan­nels of­ten must be tapped to re­cover long-lost items, Huo said. The Con­ven­tion on the Means of Pro­hibit­ing and Pre­vent­ing the Il­licit Im­port, Ex­port and Trans­fer of Own­er­ship of Cul­tural Prop­erty, a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional law, mainly cov­ers post-1970 vi­o­la­tions.

Con­se­quently, China has signed bi­lat­eral agree­ments with some 20 coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, Italy and Switzer­land, to fight the smug­gling of stolen relics as a sup­ple­ment for the con­ven­tion.

Last year, when a 1,000year-old statue con­tain­ing a mum­mi­fied monk was dis­played in Bu­dapest, on loan from a Dutch col­lec­tor, it aroused sus­pi­cion. Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties found the ar­ti­fact had been stolen from Yangchun vil­lage in Fu­jian prov­ince in 1995.

But diplo­matic ne­go­ti­a­tions have yet to se­cure its re­turn. Nev­er­the­less, the vil­lagers have ini­ti­ated a law­suit for repa­tri­a­tion, and the le­gal process is on­go­ing in a Dutch court. The col­lec­tor will ap­pear in court for the first time this month, China News Ser­vice said.

“We looked for the miss­ing statue for 20 years,” said Lin Wen­qing, a vil­lager who is lead­ing the repa­tri­a­tion law­suit. “The statue is a part of our fam­i­lies.”

While some Chi­nese col­lec­tors are will­ing to pay good money to bring lost relics home, Song Xin­chao, deputy di­rec­tor of the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage, does not en­cour­age such so-called “pa­tri­otic ac­tions”.

“These relics were taken abroad through il­le­gal means,” he told China Daily pre­vi­ously. “But pur­chas­ing them will, in a way, con­firm the le­git­i­macy of such thefts, and make the prices of these items even higher in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket.”

He said diplo­matic and le­gal ap­proaches should be used more of­ten.

Nev­er­the­less, on some oc­ca­sions, the coun­try has had to pay to bring trea­sures back home when there is a threat they could fall into oth­ers’ hands, or even dis­ap­pear. In 2002, the ad­min­is­tra­tion en­trusted other in­sti­tu­tions to ne­go­ti­ate with a col­lec­tor to buy Yan­shan Ming, an 11th­cen­tury cal­lig­ra­phy mas­ter­piece, from abroad for 29.99 mil­lion yuan ($4.4 mil­lion) and the work is now housed at the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing.

“No one knows how much more we would need to pay if we bought it now,” said Shan Jix­i­ang, then head of ad­min­is­tra­tion and now di­rec­tor of the mu­seum.

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