China has been slammed by looters ever since there were first artifacts in its borders. Archeologists joke that looting is the world's second oldest profession. The illicit artifact trade in China is no joking matter, however. It is estimated that 20% of Chinese artifacts in the world today are illicit, according to He Shuzhong, an official of the State Cultural Heritage Administration.
China has a rich history of artifacts, with its colorful history of dynasties and emperors. Cultural heritage was highly refined in ancient China, where collections of antique relics were often placed in tombs as part of the most valuable possessions of the deceased. A 15th century painting titled, "Enjoying Antiquities" illustrates this point (Handbook of Transnational Crime). The looting in China has destroyed whole temples and has left a gaping hole in the history of its people.
The people of China aren't completely innocent of all charges in this curious battle against cultural identity theft. In second century China, grave robbing was an officially recognized job description. Today, the Chinese people's socioeconomic status leaves some with little choice but to go tomb raiding. One night of tomb raiding is the equivalent pay of one year of farming. In the small village of Xiaoli, it is obvious to tell who are tomb raiders; "You can tell who raided the best tombs just by looking at their houses," says Little Su, a doctor who put himself through medical school on the spoils of tomb raiding (Spirited Away). The houses of tomb raiders with their tiled roofs and satellites stick out like sore thumbs next to the mud huts of the rest of the village. Are they to blame though? In recent years, 200 auction houses have opened in China to feed the demand of Western countries. A statue that might make $10,000 in Bangkok will make $60,000 in Western countries.
Empress Dou example:
One such situation happened in a village near X'ian, the location of the tomb of the terra cotta warriors. Villagers heard there was money in the remnants of a well-known tomb of Empress Dou. They blew the top off with dynamite, then picked the grave clean. Some of the artifacts they found included some painted female figurines. The figurines were given to a dealer, who was eventually caught by the X'ian police in February 2002. The dealer had been sneaking them through customs by hiding them in truckloads of new ceramics. He gave the police the name of a Hong Kong shop he had sold 32 of the figurines to. Not all of the figurines were recovered there though. Tang Xiaojin, the X'ian cop charged with tracking down the figurines, discovered where some had traveled to. While leafing through a Sotheby's catalogue, he noticed the very figurines he was trying to track down. A representative was sent to Sotheby's to pull the figurines from the auction, but met with resistance. Sotheby's claimed to have a legitimate source, then put the burden of proving their illicitness on the Chinese representative. Finally, after pressure from China's Washington DC ambassador, Sotheby's pulled the items--20 minutes before the bidding was set to begin. The figurines were returned to China, where they are currently on display in a museum near X'ian. They are entitled, "The Special Exhibition of Returned Pottery Figures of Western Han Dynasty from America."
How was it possible for the artifacts to get into an auction house in the first place? Sotheby's and Christie's claim to have provenance checks on all artifacts that go up for bid there. So why is it possible for an illegally excavated figurine to make its way onto the (supposedly) legal platform of a Western hemisphere auction house? Its route probably wasn't too dissimilar from the route so many Asian antiquities make. Most make their way to Hong Kong, which is a free port. This means there are few restrictions on trade, importing or exporting. A comment by a Hong Kong dealer clarifies, "You know what they do with looters in China? They kill them. But once they're in Hong Kong, you can buy and sell them freely." (Stealing History 30). Forged documentation is probably made here, making the illicit object licit. Sometimes, dealers don't even go that far. On Hong Kong's Hollywood Road, dealers have posted pictures of the digging operation over the objects being sold, as if this provides some sort of provenance (Handbook of Transnational Crime). Now, with a provenance (forged or not), the artifacts are ready to be shipped to Western countries, to be sold to private collectors, or at auction, so that they can grace the pent house of soe wealthy American or European who thinks their abode needs an Asian touch. The ease at which plundered antiquities are moved suggests that high-ranking officials, with their access to moving vehicles and border-crossing sway, must be involved.
Indian Dealer example:
Empress Dou's figurines have a happy ending, but this is rarely the case. Indian police had been preparing an intense case against Vaman Narayan Ghia for a year before finally having enough evidence to search his home. They’d suspected him for years of running a bigtime artifact smuggling operation, but his organization of the smuggling made it impossible for the authorities to trace any illicit artifacts back to him. What they found in his home was more than they had ever dreamed of finding. In the Indian version of Medici, the police found “hundreds of photographs of looted 9th to 11th century statues, a long list of private collectors’ phone numbers, and 68 auction house catalogues that featured some of the same artifacts” (Spirited Away). In his confession, he admitted to 30 years of smuggling an estimated 50,000 idols, paintings, and statues stolen from protected monuments around the country. In one especially sordid case, Ghia sent pictures of a temple ceiling to a Manhattan gallery. They agreed on a price, then Ghia arranged for the statues on the ceiling to be stolen and sent to New York City.
What can be done?
There is hope, though. "...things are better than they were ten years ago. Tomb raiding, although it still exists, and exists seriously in some areas, has decreased by at least half,"He Shuzhong says. Agreements are being made between China and the U.S. on trade between their countries in an effort to minimize Chinese artifacts that find their way to American soil.
Some shocking facts:
80-90% of artifacts on the market are illicit-Kathryn Tubbs, conservator of the Institute of Archeology at the University College of London.
220,000 tombs in China have been broken into over the last 5 years
200 auction houses have opened in China in the last decade
Death is penalty for tomb raiding in China
98% of all profits from the illicit art trade go to middlemen and dealers
Up to 75% of all antiquities offered for sale in London auctions have no published provenance
The story of illicit artifacts is much the same in Laos. An overwhelmingly Buddhist country, Buddha relics have been regarded sacred and were thus safe from theft until recently. Experts believe the demand in nearby Thailand is causing the monetary lure to trump the people's respect for Buddha statuary.
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