LOOTING, BREAKING, PUTTING TOGETHER AND COPYING ART IN CHINA

PRICELESS SONG PORCELAIN BROKEN AT CHINA'S PALACE MUSEUM

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The Palace Museum in Beijing has confirmed a claim made by a netizen that a priceless porcelain. dating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) has been broken. Long Can disclosed on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter that an item of Ge porcelain ware, one of 1,106 pieces of first-grade porcelain in the Palace Museum, was broken into six pieces by a staff worker, according to Jinghua Times in Beijing. [Source: J. L. Young, Want China Times, July 31, 2011, Leo Lewis, Times of London, August 2011]

After the message was posted on Weibo, it was reposted by tens of thousands of netizens over the course of a few hours. Following this, the museum made an announcement that the porcelain ware was broken into six pieces by a staff worker who was doing non-destructive analysis and testing. The plate was in the jaws of precision testing which the worker accidently programmed to squeeze too hard. The announcement also said that right after the incident happened, all the testing works were stopped and the incident was reported to the authority. Many netizens suspected that the museum intended to conceal the fact, not wishing for a repeat of the embarassment when a thief made off with a number of watches from a visiting exhibition.

The broken work was a celadon-glazed masterpiece from the Fe Kiln. The worker who broke its is said to have a Mster’s degree and seven years experience in the labratory. Experts in Chinese antiques have estimated that the price of a well-preserved porcelain ware from Ge kiln is worth over 100 million yuan (US$15,530,000). In a 2008 auction at Sotheby's in Hong Kong, a Ge porcelain counterfeited during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) was sold for 3.28 million yuan (US$509,710).

Removal of the Imperial Chinese Art Collection to Taiwan

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Shang ritual bronze from
Taipei's Palace Museum
The collection at the Palace Museum in Taipei---regarded as the best collection fo Chinese art in the world---came from the Imperial collection of the last Qing emperors who resided in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The collection was built up over a thousand years by the Song (A.D. 960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors.

Hundreds of thousands of rare and valuable pieces originally housed in the Forbidden City were secreted away to Taipei's Palace Museum when Taiwan split from the mainland during a civil war 62 years ago. The story o how that happened begins in 1925, one year after the Last Emperor Pu Yi was forced to move out of the Forbidden City, when the collection became a possession of the Chinese people. Sun Yat-sen then ordered that the works from the Forbidden Palace be placed in China's first public museum. The museum was only open for three years before the Japanese invasion of China in 1931.

War and upheaval in China in the first half of the 20th century forced the entire collection to be moved several times. First it was taken from Beijing to Nanking, then it was taken to Sichuan, where most of the collection was hidden in caves during the Japanese occupation.

China still claims Taiwan as part of its own territory and insists the art at Taipei's Palace Museum rightfully belongs on the mainland. The mainland Chinese complain the objects in the Palace Museum in Taipei were looted by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists and should be returned. However their presence in Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution no doubt saved many item from possible destruction by the Red Guards.

Beijing's Palace Museum lent dozens of items to Taiwan for an exhibition in 2009, but Taiwan is still hesitant to lend China artefacts out of fear that they will not be returned. An official with Taiwan's Palace Museum said the ownership concerns meant there were no immediate plans for an exhibition in China.

Moving the Imperial Chinese Art Collection Around

right The Imperial collection in the Forbidden City was placed in 19,557 filled boxes first taken from Beijing to Nanking via Chengchou, Hsuchou and P'uk'ou. The transfer of the art-filled boxes took from February to June 1933 and required five trains, each with 39 sealed cars. Because there was no place to adequately store the art in Nanking, the collection was moved to Shanghai, where it stayed until 1936 when it was taken back Nanking.

After the battle for Shanghai in August, 1937, which involved the Japanese, the collection was divided into three shipments that were taken by train, truck, steamboat and hand-towed barges to various points around China at different times, keeping one step a head of the wartime hostilities. One shipment followed the Yangtze river inland, a second went south to Guilin and a third went north to Hsuchou, Xian, before all three were united again in Leshan in Sichuan province.

China's most valuable collection of art was hauled across rivers threatened with flooding and roads vulnerable to mudslides and landslides. Works were carried on the back of coolies and hidden in caves, temples and warehouses. When World War II was over the works of art were moved back Nanking. When the Communists threatened Nanking in early 1949, during their takeover of China, the collection was loaded onto three leaky freighters in Shanghai that sailed to Taiwan.

The team that catalogued the works of art were under surveillance all the time. They were not permitted to be alone with the works of art and their uniforms didn't contain pockets. The fact that nothing was lost or damaged during the collection's odyssey is an achievement unequalled by any other museum in the world.

Finding Art in China

The large numbers of construction projects in recent years have helped archeologist unearth all kinds of things. An art historian told the New York Times, “It is almost impossible to dig anywhere in China without finding something: even if you have a little plot of land behind your house you can’t do gardening without this stuff spilling out.” There are laws in place in many places that require developers to have archeologist check for ancient remains before a factory or building can be built.

So many great treasures are being unearthed in China that the China Daily News yawned "Just Another Wonder" when some excellent Tang dynasty bronzes were unearthed near Xian and perfectly preserved string and percussion instruments from a nearly whole 5th century B.C. orchestra were discovered.

Many priceless items have also been lost by negligence and ignorance. Farmers destroyed priceless 2,000-year-old Han lyres and flutes because they had "inauspicious" tiger motifs on them and pig keepers in Hengyang County destroyed sixty ancient tombs when they used the bricks from mausoleums to make pig sties.

Colors of Emperor’s Qin’s Terra-Cotta Warriors

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The monochrome figures that visitors to Xian’s terra-cotta army museum see today actually began as the multicolored fantasy...Qin’s army of clay soldiers and horses was not a somber procession but a supernatural display swathed in a riot of bold colors: red and green, purple and yellow. [Source: Brook Larmer. National Geographic, June 2012 \*\]

Various materials including precious stones were ground into powder that provided pigment for the egg-based paint that was applied over two layers of lacquer. The materials and colors included cinnabar for red, charcoal for black, cinnabar and barium copper silicate for purple, azurite for blue, iron oxide for dark red, crushed bones burned at high temperatures for white and malachite for green. Brown, back and the ground layer were made of the sap of a local tree. \*\

When archeologist began uncovering the army, the lacquer had dried and flaked off, taking the color with it. Today, scientists using a variety of techniques have figured out what the ancient hues were and in some cases where they went on the warriors so that the original colors of entire soldiers could be determined. \*\

Larmer wrote: “Sadly, most of the colors did not survive the crucible of time—or the exposure to air that comes with discovery and excavation. In earlier digs, archaeologists often watched helplessly as the warriors’ colors disintegrated in the dry Xian air. One study showed that once exposed, the lacquer underneath the paint begins to curl after 15 seconds and flake off in just four minutes—vibrant pieces of history lost in the time it takes to boil an egg. Now a combination of serendipity and new preservation techniques is revealing the terra-cotta army’s true colors. A three-year excavation in Xian’s most famous site, known as Pit 1, has yielded more than a hundred soldiers, some still adorned with painted features, including black hair, pink faces, and black or brown eyes. The best-preserved specimens were found at the bottom of the pit, where a layer of mud created by flooding acted as a sort of 2,000-year-long spa treatment.” \*\

Archeological Work That Yielded the Colors of Emperor’s Qin’s Terra-Cotta Army

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “The last excavation in Pit 1 screeched to a halt in 1985 after a worker stole a warrior’s head and was summarily executed—a head for a head, as it were. In the long hiatus that followed, Chinese researchers worked with experts from the Bavarian State Conservation Office in Germany to develop a preservative known as PEG to help save the warriors’ colors. During the recent excavation, the moment a painted artifact was unearthed, workers sprayed any bit of exposed color with the solution, then wrapped it in plastic to keep in the protective moisture. The most colorful pieces (and the earth surrounding them) have been removed to an on-site laboratory for further treatment. To everyone’s delight, the modern techniques for preserving ancient colors seem to be working. [Source: Brook Larmer. National Geographic, June 2012 \*\]

“In a narrow trench on the north side of Pit 1, archaeologist Shen Maosheng leads me past what look like terra-cotta backpacks strewn across the reddish soil. They are, in fact, clay quivers still bristling with bronze arrows. Shen and I skirt the remnants of a freshly excavated chariot, then stop beside a plastic sheet. “Want to see a real find?” he asks. Lifting the sheet, Shen unveils a jagged, three-foot-long shield. The wood has rotted away, but the shield’s delicate design and brilliant reds, greens, and whites are imprinted on the earth. A few steps away is an intact military drum whose leather surface has left another glorious pattern on the dirt, its crimson lines as fine as human hair. Together with the imprints of finely woven silk and linen textiles also found here, these artifacts offer clues about the artistic culture that flourished under the Qin dynasty and the vibrant palette that infused it. /*/

“With so much color and artistry imprinted on the soil—the ancient paint, alas, adheres to dirt more readily than to lacquer—Chinese preservationists are now trying to preserve the earth itself. “We are treating the earth as an artifact,” says Rong Bo, the museum’s head chemist, who helped develop a binding agent, now under patent, that holds the soil together so the color won’t be lost. The next challenge, Rong says, will be to find an acceptable method for reapplying this color to the warriors. /*/

“With less than one percent of the vast tomb complex excavated so far, it may take centuries to uncover all that remains hidden. But the pace of discovery is quickening. In 2011 the museum launched two long-term excavation projects on the flanks of the 250-foot-high central burial mound. Exploratory digs in this area a decade ago uncovered a group of terra-cotta acrobats and strong men. More extensive excavations will yield “mind-boggling discoveries,” predicts Wu Yongqi, the museum’s director.” /*/

Piecing Together the Terra-Cotta Soldiers

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “In an earthen pit in central China, under what used to be their village’s persimmon orchard, three middle-aged women are hunched over an ancient jigsaw puzzle. Yang Rongrong, a cheerful 57-year-old with a pageboy haircut, turns over a jagged piece in her callused hands and fits it into the perfect spot. The other women laugh and murmur their approval, as if enjoying an afternoon amusement in their village near the city of Xian. What Yang and her friends are doing, in fact, is piecing together the 2,200-year-old mystery of the terra-cotta army, part of the celebrated (and still dimly understood) burial complex of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di. [Source: Brook Larmer. National Geographic, June 2012 \*\]

“It usually takes Yang and her co-workers many days to transform a heap of clay fragments into a full-size warrior, but today they are lucky, accomplishing the task in a matter of hours. “I have no special talent,” insists Yang, who has been solving such puzzles since 1974, when farmers from her village of Xiyang first unearthed pottery and a sculpted head while digging a well for their orchard. “But nearly every warrior here has passed through my hands.” Having helped reassemble an army of a thousand warriors, Yang contemplates today’s final piece: a clay head sheathed in protective plastic. Visible through the wrap are flashes of pink and red, brilliant hues that hint at the original glory of the terra-cotta warriors. \*\

“Down in Pit 1, Yang tightens the straps that hold her reconstructed warrior together. His head, still wrapped in plastic, is beaded with moisture. His lifelike pigment has been preserved, and his body will go on display at the museum with all of the cracks and fissures he received during his 2,200 years underground. In the early days of the Xian excavations, the fractures and imperfections of the terra-cotta warriors were plastered over. Now, reflecting the evolution of the museum’s views on historical accuracy, a new army is forming on the pit’s west end, cracks and all. In every statue Yang’s handiwork is plainly visible. “It’s nothing special,” she says with a modest smile. And with that, she and her village friends get back to work, piecing together the puzzle beneath the roots of their old persimmon trees.” \*\

Looting of Chinese Art

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auction selling Summer Palace heads
Looting is a serious problem in China. Looters have ravaged ancient tombs and archeological sites, taking priceless relics, armor, weapons, porcelain, bronzes, silk and ornaments. In many cases the looting is done by farmers, construction workers and criminal gangs. Many farmers have turned to looting because they make so little money from farming, their living expenses are high and looting presents an opportunity to make a lot of money quick that is hard to resist. According to one peasant saying: "To be rich dig up an ancient tomb; to make a fortune open a coffin." Evidence of looting is founded in the flashy clothes and nice homes owned by former peasant farmers.

Auctions, antique fairs and art galleries of filled with looted works. It is estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of the Chinese art sold on the international market was somehow illegally obtained. Beginning around 1980, a stream of bronzes, ceramics and jades from Neolithic times to the 14th century began pouring into Western markets via Hong Kong. The objects originated on the mainland and most likely were looted from tombs. Over the years the amount of this kind of art available on the market has increased dramatically.

The looted articles are usually taken to Hong Kong, where they are given fake histories and documentation. Much of the valuable stuff ends up at antique shops and galleries in Hong Kong or auction houses and top galleries in the United States, Europe and Japan. In Hong Kong it is possible to buy Tang celedons, Ming bowls, even 2000-year-old terra-cotta and neolithic figures. It is widely believed that items are smuggled out the country with the help of bribed local- and high-level government officials.

By some estimates 300,000 to 400,000 ancient Chinese tombs have been raided in China in the past 25 years and 220,000 tombs were broken into between 1998 and 2003. Looting is particularly big problem around Xian, the home of the terra-cotta army and other archeological sites, and the city of Luoyang, the capital of at least nine dynasties. These areas are littered with imperial tombs that are mostly unguarded and easy pickings for looters.

Sometimes the art is stolen outright from museums, temples, archeological sites or government warehouses that store art and artifacts. A stone-carving of Buddha purchased for $2 million and displayed at the Miho Museum, near Kyoto, Japan, was stolen from an office in Boxing County in Shandong province in 1994. In 1997, a gang of thieves used a diamond saw and sledgehammer to knock off the head of a 7th century Akshobhya Buddha, one of four large statues of Buddha at the Four Gate Pagoda in Shandong Province. The thieves were caught soon afterwards but the head disappeared. In February 2002, it turned up as a gift from loyal disciples to a 73-year-old Buddhist master and founder of a meditation center. The Buddhist master alerted authorities. In December 2002 the head was placed back on the torso it was knocked off of.

Looting Operations in China

The looters usually work at night. It is not unusual for them to be half drunk. New recruits are often spooked about the idea of raiding tomb after a lifetime of listening to ghost stories. The work often involves tunneling. For those who go down the tunnels the work is very dangerous. It is not uncommon for the tunnels to collapse or the looters to be overcome by toxic fumes in the tomb. The looters who do the work are paid about $60 a night by middle men and dealers who make thousands of dollars off their work and have much fewer risks.

Some of the looting operations can be quite sophisticated. In Xian a team of looters broke into the 2000-year-old tomb of the Empress Dou, a powerful Han dynasty dowager who died in 135 B.C., and made off with a huge cache of treasures. The tomb was located 131 feet below the surface inside a burial mound. With a tangon--a special shovel with a curved blade and steel screw-on handle extensions that can be used to extract sol samples from over 100 feet below the surface--the looters probed beneath the surface looking for things like charcoal--which ancient gravedigger placed around tombs for protection against moisture--to locate the best place to excavate. [Source: Time magazine]

To reach the tomb the gang dug a 115-foot-deep tunnel. To help them get started they used dynamite to blast a small crater at the surface to speed up the digging process. They were careful not use explosives powerful enough to cause the roof of the tunnel to collapse. Members of the gangs and their gear were lowered into the tunnel with a rope. An air blower powered by a portable generator pumped in fresh air from the surface. To reach the tomb roof a breach tunnel was built off the main tunnel. Saws were used to cut through the wooden-plank roof of the tomb.

Once inside the tomb the looters donned gas mask to filter out the stale air and toxic gases that have accumulated in the tomb as a result of decay. Without gas masks looters often pass out from the fumes. Police were alerting that looting was going on by villagers who smelled fumes from the explosives blown towards their a village. Three looters were arrested. Two got away. After the police left another gang penetrate into the tomb and made off with at least 2000 object, mostly ceramic statues (gold and valuable art is believed to be have carted away centuries earlier).

Some of the pieces were found by customs during a routine check of new ceramics. Others made their way to New York and were pulled from a Sotheby’s auction just 20 minutes before bidding on them was to began. They were eventually returned. Other pieces undoubtably did find buyers.

Scale and Sophistication of Looting in China Increases

The Guardian reported in January 2012, “China's extraordinary historical treasures are under threat from increasingly aggressive and sophisticated tomb raiders, who destroy precious archaeological evidence as they swipe irreplaceable relics. The thieves use dynamite and even bulldozers to break into the deepest chambers---and night vision goggles and oxygen canisters to search them. The artefacts they take are often sold on within days to international dealers. [Source: Tania Branigan, Guardian, January 1, 2012]

Tomb theft is a global problem that has gone on for centuries. But the sheer scope of China's heritage---with thousands of sites, many of them in remote locations---poses a particular challenge. "Before, China had a large number of valuable ancient tombs and although it was really depressing to see a tomb raided, it was still possible to run into a similar one in the future," said Professor Wei Zheng, an archaeologist at Peking University. "Nowadays too many have been destroyed. Once one is raided, it is really difficult to find a similar one."

His colleague, Professor Lei Xingshan, said: "We used to say nine out of 10 tombs were empty because of tomb-raiding, but now it has become 9.5 out of 10." Their team found more than 900 tombs in one part of Shanxi they researched and almost every one had been raided. Wei said precious evidence such as how and when the tomb was built was often destroyed in raids, even if relics could be recovered. "Quite apart from the valuable objects lost, the site is also damaged and its academic value is diminished," he said.

Wei and Lei spent two years excavating two high grade tombs from the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou periods (jointly spanning 1100BC to 221BC) and found both had been completely emptied by thieves. "It really is devastating to see it happening," Zheng said. "Archaeologists are now simply chasing after tomb raiders."

Experts say the problem became worse as China's economy opened up, with domestic and international collectors creating a huge market for thieves. Zheng said a phrase emerged in the 1980s: "If you want to be rich, dig up old tombs and become a millionaire overnight."

According to AFP: “The demand for Chinese antiquities has exploded, helping propel Hong Kong to third spot in the global auction market behind London and New York as collectors slap down eye-popping sums for a piece of the country's history. Helping drive the boom is a growing class of super-rich Chinese looking for opportunities to exploit their net worth while also "reclaiming" parts of Chinese history from Western collectors.Auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's together raised over $460 million from sales of Chinese antiquities and art works in 2011. [Source: AFP, February 2012]

Professional Looters in China

Officials say tomb thefts have become increasingly professionalised. Gangs from the provinces worst hit---Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan, which all have a particularly rich archaeological heritage---have begun exporting their expertise to other regions. One researcher estimated that 100,000 people were involved in the trade nationally.

Wei Yongshun, a senior investigator, told China Daily in 2011 that crime bosses often hired experienced teams of tomb thieves and sold the plunder on to middlemen as quickly as they could. Other officers told how thieves paid farmers to show them the tombs and help them hide from police.

Raiders return to a site repeatedly over months. In some cases, thieves have reportedly built small "factories" next to tombs---allowing them to break in without being noticed.

Wei said: "Stolen cultural artefacts are usually first smuggled out through Hong Kong and Macao and then taken to Taiwan, Canada, America or European countries to be traded."

Audacity and Destructiveness of Looters

The sheer size as well as value of the relics demonstrates the audacity of the raiders---last year, the Chinese authorities recovered a 27-tonne sarcophagus that had been stolen from Xi'an and shipped to the US. It took four years of searching before China identified the collector who had bought the piece---from the tomb of Tang dynasty concubine Wu Huifei---for an estimated $1m (£650,000), and secured its return. [Source: Tania Branigan, Guardian, January 1, 2012]

In a particularly alarming case last year, raiders simply bulldozed their way through 10 newly discovered tombs in eastern Jiangxi province. The Global Times newspaper reported that pieces of coffins and pottery and iron items were scattered across the ravaged site, which was thought to date back 2,000 years. Archaeologists said further excavation was impossible because the destruction was so bad.

Underwater Looting in China and Combating It

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The biggest threat to underwater archaeology, Cui says, is the popularity of the artifacts such sites carry. Unblemished, authentic Ming Dynasty porcelain can command high prices from collectors, and thieves have learned to target sunken ships to find it. According to the archaeologists at Nan'ao, keeping the wreck well protected has been the key to their success. However, they are on-site only a few months a year. The rest of the time, Nan'ao Number One is under the watch of one determined local law enforcement officer. "If we had no Zhu Zhixiong, we would have no Nan'ao," Cui says. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]

Zhu, or Chief Zhu, as everyone on the boat calls him, is the head of Nan'ao Island's maritime border control. He is perpetually in uniform and has a tendency to stare, earnest and unblinking, when speaking about the Nan'ao. "When the fishermen uncovered the porcelain they wanted to keep it," he says. They discovered the Nan'ao's treasures while diving off the coast of the island in 2007 and set about building their collection in secret, hoping to attract the attention of a buyer. Instead, tales of the stash reached Zhu. "We run a program where we reach out to the local people and they feel comfortable talking to us," Zhu explains. "Somebody came to us and told us about the artifacts." The border patrol confiscated the porcelain and Zhu did his best to explain to other fishermen that retrieving and selling the artifacts is against the law.

"We didn't do this for glory," Zhu says. "We didn't know what was down there at that point. We don't dive, we can't see under the water, but we know it is important to protect our national heritage." Zhu dedicated himself to guarding a wreck he couldn't see. "This isn't just a Chinese problem," Zhu says carefully. "But thieves and treasure hunters are tireless." At the Nan'ao wreck, Zhu set up 24-hour surveillance. "They will come at night or in bad weather, thinking you won't chase them. Some of them are very professional." Some haul in diving gear and lights. Others are fishermen and experienced enough in the water to free dive 90 feet to the bottom. "One boat must have studied our habits and came in through an area we weren't patrolling. When we came with our boats they fled, but we saw, with complete clarity, where they were headed." Zhu's team called ahead to another guard base and caught the thieves.

Over the years, Zhu's reputation has spread. Patrol officers say they are seeing fewer attempts every year. Still, says Zhu, you have to be vigilant. "You can't sleep if you want to protect our heritage," he says. When Cui sees him on the deck of the Nan Tianshun, he gives him an affectionate pat on the shoulder and says, "Every wreck needs its own Chief Zhu."

Combating Looting in China

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looted Summer Palace head
To combat looting 1) auction houses and antiques dealers are required to reapply every year for their licenses; 2) motion sensors and satellite devises have been installed at archeological sites and places with a lot tombs; and 3) volunteers have been marshaled to guard the best-known sites. Chinese law forbids the export of art more than 200 years old. The looting problem is still serious but many believed its is not as bad as it once was. Smuggling and looting was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Tania Branigan wrote in the Guardian, “Police have already stepped up their campaign against the criminals and the government is devoting extra resources to protecting sites and tracing offenders. This year it set up a national information centre to tackle such crimes. Spending on protecting cultural relics as a whole soared from 765m yuan in 2006 to 9.7bn in 2011. [Source: Tania Branigan, Guardian, January 1, 2012]

The crackdown by authorities was helping to contain the problem to an extent. According to the ministry of public security, police investigated 451 tomb-raiding cases in 2010 and another 387 involving the theft of relics. In the first six months of that year, they smashed 71 gangs, detained 787 suspects and recovered 2,366 artefacts. Those caught face fines and jail terms of three to 10 years, or life in the most serious cases.

Luo Xizhe of the Shaanxi provincial cultural relics bureau told China Daily: "If we don't take immediate and effective steps to protect these artefacts, there will be none of these things left to protect in 10 years." He said provincial and national authorities planned to spend more than 100m yuan (£10m) on surveillance equipment for tombs in Shaanxi over the next five years. But video surveillance and infrared imaging devices for night-time monitoring cost 5m yuan for even a small grave, he added.

Local officials have insufficient resources to prevent the crimes and often do not see the thefts as a priority. Others turn a blind eye after being bribed by gangs. But international collectors bear as much responsibility for the crimes as the actual thieves: the high prices they offer create the incentive for criminals.

Several looters who have been caught have received the death penalty. In 1987, some looters received the death penalty after they were caught trying to sell the head of one Xian's famous terra-cotta soldiers to a foreign dealer for $81,000. In May 2003, three men were executed for plundering tombs dating back to 2,000 years.

Many feel that most effective measure would be import ban on antiques in Europe, Japan and the United States. Many looted items are believed to end up on the United States. Beijing has repeatedly urged Washington to adopt a ban on imports of any art or artifacts predating 1911. Thus far Washington has not responded in part because of fierce objection by art dealers and collectors. Some would like to see tough measures taken in Hong Kong as well. Demonstrations have been held there calling for an end to auctions where looted mainland art is sold

Hunt in Foreign Museums for Art Treasures Taken From China

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looted Summer Palace head
In late 2009, a delegation of Chinese cultural experts swept through American institutions, seeking to reclaim items once ensconced at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was one of the world’s most richly appointed imperial residences until British and French troops plundered it in 1860. The delegation visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with a crew from China’s national broadcaster filming the visit and fired off questions about the provenance of objects on display and requested documentation on a collection of jade pieces to show that the pieces had been acquired legally...But when nothing out-of-order was discovered the Chinese posed for a group photo and left.[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, December 12, 2009]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties. But the quest, fueled by national pride, has been quixotic, provoking fear at institutions overseas but in the end amounting to little more than a public relations show aimed at audiences back home.”

‘stoked by populist sentiment but carefully managed by the Communist Party, the drive to reclaim lost cultural property has so far been halting. While officials privately acknowledge there is scant legal basis for repatriation, their public statements suggest that they would use lawsuits, diplomatic pressure and shame to bring home looted objects---not unlike Italy, Greece and Egypt, which have sought, with some success, to recover antiquities in European and American museums.”

“The United States scouting tour---visits to England, France and Japan will come early next year---quickly turned into a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company. As for the eight-member delegation, a closer look revealed that most either were employed by the Chinese media or were from the palace museum’s propaganda department.

But the 20-day spin through a dozen institutions has not been especially fruitful. Wu Jiabi, an archaeologist and the leader of the delegation, said that meaningful contacts were made but acknowledged that the group had not discovered illicit relics. The visit has had its share of mishaps. Not all the museums on the itinerary were prepared for the delegation. One stop, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., was scrapped after the group realized the museum was in the Midwest, not in the Northeast.

The art experts whom the group met along the way offered consistent advice: the lion’s share of palace relics are in private hands, including those of collectors in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. The best thing would be to look through the catalogs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, said a curator at the Metropolitan Museum.

Although the Chinese public broadly supports recovering such items, a few critics have suggested that the campaign merely distracts from the continued destruction of historic buildings and archaeological sites across the country.A government survey released this month found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development.

What’s more, said Wu Zuolai, a professor at the China Academy of Art, the obsession with Yuanmingyuan ignores the plunder of older sites that are more artistically significant. Chinese history did not start with the Qing Dynasty, he said. This treasure hunting trip is just a political show. The media portray it as patriotic, but it’s just spreading hate.

A researcher who was part of the delegation, seemed to admit as much, complaining that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembled little more than a military barracks. To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken, he said.

Chinese Treasures Pose Ethics Issues for Smithsonian

Kate Taylor wrote in the New York Times: “Amid mounting calls by scientists for the Smithsonian Institution to cancel a planned exhibition of Chinese artifacts salvaged from a shipwreck. The contents of the exhibition, ‘shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,” were mined by a commercial treasure hunter and not according to academic methods, a practice that many archaeologists deplore, equating it with modern-day piracy.” [Source: Kate Taylor, New York Times, April 24, 2011]

“In an April 5 letter to the top official at the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, a group of archaeologists and anthropologists from the National Academy of Sciences---including Robert McCormick Adams, a former leader of the Smithsonian, wrote that proceeding with the exhibition would ‘severely damage the stature and reputation” of the institution. The members of the National Academy of Sciences are not alone. In recent weeks organizations including the Society for American Archaeology, the Council of American Maritime Museums and the International Committee for Underwater Cultural Heritage, as well as groups within the Smithsonian, including the members of the anthropology department and the Senate of Scientists at its National Museum of Natural History, have urged Mr. Clough to reconsider.” [Ibid]

“The exhibition was conceived by the government of Singapore, which owns the artifacts, and Julian Raby, the director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s two Asian art museums. It is on display in Singapore through July and will then travel internationally. Although the Smithsonian says it has not made a final decision, the exhibition---which includes glazed pottery, rare pieces of early blue-and-white porcelain and the largest gold cup ever found from the Tang Dynasty (618-907)---is tentatively set to arrive at the Sackler in the spring of 2012. [Ibid]

“The probable historical importance of the shipwreck, which was discovered by fishermen off Belitung Island in Indonesia in 1998, has only inflamed the debate. The ship, which is believed to be Arab, was filled with a cargo of ninth-century Chinese ceramics and gold and silver vessels. Its discovery suggests that Tang China had substantial sea trade with the Middle East; scholars had previously thought that the trade routes were primarily over land, along the Silk Road. [Ibid]

“Archaeologists, however, say that because the shipwreck was commercially mined within a period of months, rather than the many years that a more structured archaeological excavation would have taken, much of the information it might have provided about the ship’s crew and cargo was lost. [Ibid]

“Commercial treasure hunting is a high-stakes world. Companies sometimes spend millions of dollars searching for and mining a shipwreck and then cleaning up the finds in the hope of selling the artifacts for a huge profit at the end. The company that salvaged the Belitung wreck, Seabed Explorations, is run by a German engineer, Tilman Walterfang. In the early 1990s Mr. Walterfang was a director at a concrete company in Germany when his Indonesian employees’stories about the rumors of shipwrecks lying on the bottom of the ocean in Indonesia prompted him to move across the world. [Ibid]

“Although a 2001 UNESCO convention outlawed the commercial trade in underwater heritage, Indonesia has not ratified it. (Neither has the United States.) Indonesia allows commercial mining of shipwrecks as long as a company is licensed and splits its finds with the government. In an e-mail Mr. Walterfang said that when fisherman first discovered the shipwreck in early August 1998, the Indonesian government, fearful of looting, ordered Seabed Explorations to begin an immediate round-the-clock recovery operation. It started within days. Although Mr. Walterfang eventually brought in a pair of archaeologists, including one, Michael Flecker, who wrote two journal articles about the ship, Mr. Walterfang conceded that, from an academic standpoint, “the overall situation would without doubt be described as “less than ideal.” “

After fielding interest from China, Seabed Explorations sold the majority of the 63,000 artifacts recovered to a company owned by the Singapore government, for $32 million. The Indonesian government kept slightly more than 8,000 objects from this ship, along with $2.5 million and finds from another ship excavated by Mr. Walterfang. Some artifacts have ended up on eBay and other online sites; Mr. Walterfang said that these were probably looted by fishermen while the recovery process was halted for the monsoon season, between December 1998 and March 1999. [Ibid]

Shipwreck, See China

Mr. Flecker, the archaeologist who studied the ship, argued in a 2002 article in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology that the purist approach of many archaeologists was not practical in developing countries like Indonesia, where governments are poor and the risk of looting is high. In those circumstances, he wrote, archaeologists and commercial salvagers should cooperate “to document those sites and the artifacts recovered from them before too much information is lost.” [Ibid]

“But in the eyes of archaeologists like James P. Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at the United States Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, allowing any of the finds from an excavation to be sold betrays the most basic aspects of research, in which ‘sometimes it’s the smallest things that we come back to that make the great leaps forward.” [Ibid]

“Mr. Delgado said he wished the Belitung shipwreck had been academically excavated. But unlike some of his colleagues, he said that instead of canceling the exhibition, the Smithsonian could use it to educate the public about the consequences of the commercialization of underwater heritage. If, however, the exhibition merely celebrates the discovery without addressing the problematic context, Mr. Delgado added, “there will be a clear message to Indonesia---that these practices “are fine,” and to other countries with rich maritime heritage to “engage in these things and sell it off.” [Ibid]

Failed Sale of Bronze Heads from the Summer Palace

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looted Summer Palace head
In March 2008, a big deal was made about the offering of a bronze rabbit’s head and a companion piece depicting a rat that were put up for sale at a Christies auction. The pieces had been stolen from the Summer Palace in Beijing, razed by French and British troops in 1860, and are regarded as stolen antiquities by the Chinese. They were owned by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

A Chinese bidder, art dealer Cai Mingchao, claimed the bronzes with a $40 million bid and then said he no intention of paying. Acting on behalf of a nongovernmental group whose aim is to repatriate looted art, Ming said he bid on the bronzes as a patriotic act. Christie’s had put the the objects up for auction even though Beijing called the auction “illegal” and warned Christies not to proceed with it.

The two bronze heads, which date to 1750, were part of a 12-animal water-clock fountain configured around the Chinese zodiac. It was located in the imperial gardens of the Summer Palace outside Beijing. Seven of the 12 fountain pieces have been found; the whereabouts of the other five bronze heads are unknown. “I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment,” Cai said of his bid, made by telephone through Christie’s. “It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities...On moral grounds, and as a way to protest the auction...I want to emphasize that the money won’t be paid.” [Source: Mark Mcdonald, New York Times, March 2, 2009]

“Cai said he did not have the money to pay for the two heads he bought. And it was unclear how he had been able to register as a qualified bidder. Kate Malin, a spokesperson for Christie’s in Hong Kong, said all potential bidders at major auctions are required to submit bank and credit information as part of a registration process. You can’t just call up and say, “I want to buy a $20 million Picasso.” she said. You have to provide satisfactory credit and bank information. Even established clients of an auction house have to provide further financial data if they want to participate in auctions of items that are likely to be substantially more expensive than their previous purchases.” The general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Company in Fujian Province, in southeastern China, Cai paid a record $15 million in 2006 for a Ming Dynasty bronze Buddha statue.” [Ibid]

“In the event of a winning bidder being unable or unwilling to pay, Malin said, the item in question does not automatically pass to the second-highest bidder. She said the auction house usually tries to reach a compromise solution between bidder and seller. She declined to say what might happen to the bronzes if Cai refused to pay.” [Ibid]

“In the days leading up to the Christie’s sale, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said the bronzes were part of China’s cultural patrimony and demanded their return. A group of Chinese lawyers tried to block the auction but a French court allowed the sale to proceed. The Western powers have plundered a great number of Chinese cultural relics, said Ma Zhaoxu, a ministry spokesman, quoted in the state-run newspaper China Daily. He said many relics had been looted from the Summer Palace in particular. Pierre Bergé, the French owner, of the statues defiantly told the government it could have the heads if it would observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama.” [Ibid]

Earlier Sales of Bronze Heads from the Summer Palace

In April 2000, two of the 12 zodiac bronze animal heads - the ox and monkey - were put on sale in Hong Kong. They were both successfully bought by the Poly Group, a People's Liberation Army affiliated corporation and arms dealer based in Beijing, for HK$7 million (then $900,000) and HK$7.4 million respectively. At the time, critics questioned whether the bronze heads were worth such high prices and said Poly's bids might raise the price for other heads from the same collection. But a representative of Poly Group said the bronze heads were invaluable “national treasures” and that they hoped their move could cause the rest of the animal heads to surface for public sale. . More of them did soon appear at public auctions, and just a month after buying the the ox and monkey heads, Poly bought the tiger head at a public auction in Hong Kong, this time for HK$14 million. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times, March 11, 2009]

“In 2003, the National Treasures Fund of China, a quasi-governmental group, brokered a deal that brought one of the bronze fountain pieces---a pig’s head---back to China. With about $1 million donated by Stanley Ho, the real estate and casino billionaire from Macao, the head was purchased from an American collector, according to an account by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. Ho bought another---a horse’s head---for $8.84 million at an auction run by Sotheby’s in 2007. He subsequently gave the piece to China Poly, which owns a museum where it displays the Qing Dynasty bronzes.” [McDonald, Op. Cit]

Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, said his group had tried to buy the rat and rabbit heads in 2003 but dropped the effort when the sellers, apparently representatives of Saint Laurent, who died in June 2009 , and Bergé, asked for $10 million for each head. [McDonald, Op. Cit]

Chinese Government Involved in the Sabotaged Sale of the Looted Bronzes?

There was speculation that the sabotage of the auction had the backing of the Chinese government. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Cai had acted without government approval, though he reiterated Beijing's position that the bronze heads should be returned to China. Chinese officials attending the NPC and CPPCC annual sessions were grilled by the media on the scandal. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times, March 11, 2009]

Neither the Chinese government nor the general public made a fuss over Summer Place bronze head in Hong Kong auctions in 2000, 2003 and 2007. But Beijing and the Chinese public were indignant over the Paris sale. For one thing, the auction was like a slap in the face for China as the looting of Yuanming Yuan was carried out by French and British forces during the second Opium War in 1860. The Chinese people's anger at the sale was heightened by the poor state of Sino-French relations. Beijing was angry over a recent meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama last December. [Ibid]

“For Chinese people, the looting and burning of Summer Palace is a shameful chapter of Chinese history, and the 12 bronze animal heads would be better classed as symbols of Chinese shame rather than “national treasures”. For, as many critics have pointed out, they are not so ancient when compared with other Chinese bronze relicts; nor are they really fine pieces of Chinese art, as they were in fact designed by Jesuit missionaries.” [Ibid]

Many Chinese were taken aback aback what Cai had done. On the Internet, criticism of Cai is more harsh. “You said you did this on behalf of the whole Chinese people? How could you ever say this? We did not authorize you to act on our behalf,” said one blogger. “You seem to want to become a national hero. But what you have done shames our nation,” said another. [Ibid]

Fake Chinese Antiquities

The market for Chinese antiquities has also generated a slew of fakes from con-men hoping to make big bucks. "There are many fakes on the market, and there are probably more now because the price of these antiquities have increased dramatically," Tang Hoi-chiu, chief curator of Hong Kong's Museum of Art, told AFP. "There are some very good copies out there." [Source: AFP, February 2012]

AFP reported: “The problem was highlighted again last month when questions arose about the authenticity of a jade dressing table and stool from the Han dynasty, which had fetched about $35 million at a mainland Chinese auction. Experts are now publicly questioning the piece since Chinese were believed to have sat on the floor, not stools or chairs, during the ancient period which ran from about 206 BC to 220 AD, the South China Morning Post reported.

Facts and figures about the black market in antiquities are difficult to come by, although many fakes are produced in mainland China, said Rosemary Scott, international academic director to Christie's Asian art departments. Scott has seen fakes many times larger than they should be and other amateur mistakes that can make determining authenticity a 30-second operation. "Some are absolutely dreadful and some are very good," she said. "In one case, a person presented me with (a piece) that was taller than me when it's only supposed to be a foot tall." But other items can take weeks or longer to determine if they're genuine, demanding a rigorous checklist, she said. Auction houses have even pulled items displayed in pre-sale catalogues when doubts about their authenticity lingered. "Our reputation is paramount - it's what we stand by," Scott said.

Auction Houses Outfox Chinese Antiquity Fakers

Nicolas Chow places a magnifying glass against a Ming Dynasty vase to inspect the potter's 600-year old workmanship. Chow, the international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art at auction giant Sotheby's, points out layers of uneven bubbles invisible to the naked eye along the early 15th Century blue and white porcelain. The distinctive markings are just one tell-tale sign that experts rely on to determine if a piece is a multi-million dollar original or worthless fake. [Source: AFP, February 2012]

"That happens in the firing process - they did not have an even temperature in (kilns) during the 15th century," Chow said of the piece, which fetched nearly US$22 million at an auction in Hong Kong late last year, setting a world record price for Ming Dynasty porcelain. "The feel of the glaze is also incredibly important. Just running your hands over it will give you the answer. "Potters in the old days would do lots and lots of these, one after the other. They breathed it, they lived it. It's very difficult for fakers to recreate... But there is still a degree of fear in the market."

Auction houses use various means including carbon dating to pinpoint a piece's age, but that requires taking a value-denting sample and threatens to make an item less appealing to keen-eyed collectors. "You have to decide if it's worth it because (carbon dating) could make the piece less aesthetically pleasing or just plain disfiguring," Scott said. The art expert said she runs pieces through a slew of criteria before making a determination and often brings in colleagues to gauge their opinion. "Does it have the right shape?" she said. "Is it the right texture, the right colour, was it painted with the right kind of brush?"

And when a piece fetches a giant price tag, auction houses are sure to be flooded with offers of similar antiquities, though most don't pass muster. "Within a few weeks, we are being offered copies of that piece," said Pola Antebi, head of Chinese ceramics and works of art at Christie's Hong Kong. "The turnaround is pretty scary." Complicating matters, some Chinese emperors ordered underlings to recreate works from earlier periods, which do not count as fakes, while there are also genuine pieces that have been retouched over the centuries."That is a restoration issue, it is not an authenticity issue. But collectors prefer untouched, so something has not been altered in any way," Antebi said, adding that retouching can slash a piece's value by half or more.

Most genuine works come from established collectors, but ordinary people also tap auction houses to authenticate pieces that may have been in their families for years, or ones they bought without first confirming their credentials. "People's expectations of the value are quite high. So when you tell them (the piece) is not going to pay for school fees or their retirement, it's terribly difficult," Antebi said, adding that she delivers the news "as politely as possible." Auction houses are also on the look out for phony collectors who "just ask too many questions" when they are told a piece is not genuine, suggesting they are trying to learn how to make a more convincing fake that will evade detection, Scott said.

For Chow at Sotheby's, spotting fakes means taking stock of every minute detail, although experts are not keen to reveal all their secrets for fear they could fall into the wrong hands. "But after some time you just get a feel," Chow said. "If you lift 50 similar Ming vases and know this one is not the right weight, then you know something is wrong - it's like your bag with and without a laptop," he added. "I'm not saying fakers can't get one thing right, but to get it all right is really difficult."

Copying Art in China

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Copy artist
Chinese artists working in factory-like conditions produce much of the world’s supply of copied Western art. They create reproductions of paintings by Van Gogh, Turner, Da Vinci, Klimt and others at a rate of several a day. China now dominates the under $500 art market the same way it dominates the toys, plastic goods and textiles industries. Works by Chinese artists have found their way into homes and markets around the globe, so much so that artists who sell their works at the Spanish Steps in Rome and along the beaches in Santa Monica feel threatened.

China’s art schools churn out tens of thousands of skilled painters every year. Copying Western art is the only way many of them can earn a living from their art. Zhang Lining, an artist in Shenzhen, estimates he painted 2,000 Van Gogh before he reached age of 25. That is more than Van Gogh himself painted in his lifetime. Other artists produce landscapes and copies of famous paintings by other Western artists. They often work from post cards or art books. One told National Geographic, “I’d love to give up replication and follow my artistic dreams.

Some 8,000 painters work in the Dafen Oil Painting Village in Shenzhen. Some are trained artists. Others paint by numbers and churn out 20 Van Gogh Sunflowers a day. These works are hung outside like laundry to dry and are sold for $3.50 a piece. Typically the artists are paid around $200 a month and given room and board. The cost of paints, canvas and other materials is minimal. The company that employs them sells the paintings for around $25, including the frames. Shipping charges are $1 per painting. In the United States they are sold to furniture stores or traveling commercial art sales for $35 to $40, with customers paying between $100 and $125 for them.

A copyist can earn $1,500 to $4,500 a year. Some artists specialize in painting their customers face’s with a Mona Lisa body.

20080303-painter2 u wsh.jpg
Copy artist in Imperial times
In 1989 Hong Kong art dealer Huang Jiang came to Dafen because the rent and labor were cheap. One of the largest painting operations in Dafen employs 300 people to copy paintings’100 “designers” who do the original work and 200 workers that mostly do the framing. There are even some assembly line operation with one artist specializing in trees, another flowers, and another skies. On copyright issues, one dealer told Reuters, “When leaders or cultural officials come, they say: “These items are copyrighted, so just don’t put them on top."

These days works by modern Chinese artists have become so popular and fetch such jaw-dropping prices at auction house that copy artists have become increasingly busy copying these works. An artist in Dafen that churns out works by Yue Minjun at a rate of about one every day or two told Reuters, “I have done hundreds of his paintings. Copies like this aren’t really hard at all. It just takes time.” Art dealers in Dafen say that contemporary Chinese works now make up 10 percent to 20 percent of their sales.

Describing a copy artists who worked out of a government-supported artist colony near Lishui in Zhejiang Province Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, ‘she didn’t have a favorite painter; there wasn’t any particular artist period that influenced her...The government had commissioned some European-style paintings of local scenery but Chen had no use for any of it. Like many young Chinese from the countryside she had already had her full of bucolic surroundings. She stayed in the Ancient Weir Village strictly because of the free rent, and she missed the busy city of Guangzhou where had previously lived.”

Image Sources: Palace Museum in Taipei ; Want China Times, Shanghaiist, Xinhua, Christie's

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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