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Antiquated Trade

As positive changes and progress have been made globally on repatriating looted cultural relics to their countries of origin, the ethics of collecting are coming to the fore, as experts warn vital historical knowledge is being lost

By Wang Yan Updated Mar.1

An exhibition of hundreds of Chinese cultural relics repatriated from Italy was held at the National Museum of China in Beijing, April 24, 2019 (Photo by VCG)

In May 2023, two looted stone-carved sarcophagi beds worth over US$3.5 million were repatriated from the US to China. The two carvings depict Zoroastrian imagery such as a god triumphing over demons, lions and guard dogs, and masked priests depicted wearing feathered cloaks with bird feet. The two artifacts were among the total 89 antiquities from 10 different countries seized from the collection of Shelby White, a board member of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, following a criminal investigation into antiquities purchased by White.  

The objects had been on loan to the museum for over two decades, with one on display, and the other kept in storage. According to the announcement made by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, the artifacts were looted and smuggled out of China in the early 1900s. They were cut by looters from a 7th-century funerary platform, likely of Sogdian origin, and later sold to White.  

As both China and the US are signatories to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the illegal import and export of cultural property, and because of a bilateral agreement between the two countries to protect and preserve cultural heritage signed in 2009, the US has returned more than 400 cultural relics to China. The agreement ensures cooperation in seizing and repatriating illegally exported cultural property, as well as protecting archaeological sites from pillaging.  

Museum Ethics 
Addressing the recent seizures, Greek archaeologist Dr Christos Tsirogiannis, an international specialist who chairs a UNESCO group dedicated to illicit antiquities trafficking, told NewsChina in May 2023 that compared to the limited number of stolen items repatriated, most of the objects that have been looted will likely never be recovered.  

Based on databases containing tens of thousands of photographs and documents seized during raids, Tsirogiannis and his team of forensic archaeologists have identified many suspected stolen antiquities and facilitated the repatriation of hundreds to their source countries. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of the objects will never be repatriated, although stolen. The most important thing is that the history of these objects will never be known. They cannot narrate any story,” Tsirogiannis said.  

“For example, with these funerary pieces that have been returned to China, we may never find out who was buried with them, what was the history of the people that were buried with them, what other objects were buried with them, and where the objects are,” Tsirogiannis said.  

All this information could have been obtained if archaeologists had conducted a proper excavation of the tomb before looters entered to grab and sell the artifacts, he added. 
At the global level, source countries and archaeologists have denounced the antiquities trade, highlighting the issue of many artifacts on the market being stolen. However, there are opposing voices from collectors, dealers and some museums who assert the legal provenance of the artifacts they possess. They argue their goal is to save these items from potential loss or destruction in politically unstable regions, even if it involves buying from looters.  

But the latest scandal involving the British Museum which lost over 2,000 artifacts, including many that were never catalogued, due to lapses in security and management, has intensified the trust crisis faced by museums in Western countries.  

In August 2023, the British Museum in London admitted that some of its collection of eight million items were “missing, stolen or damaged,” British media reported. Concerns were raised over the integrity of the museum’s security after reports suggested artifacts were being sold. 
Calls for the return of looted relics from the British Museum surged from source countries including China and Egypt.  

Elizabeth Marlowe, an art professor and chair of museum studies at Colgate University in New York, has asked why some museums continue to acquire artifacts when they have the capacity to display only 10 percent of them. She told NewsChina that museums should adopt alternative approaches to collecting that are rooted in ethics and a sense of responsibility.  

David Gill, an expert in archaeological heritage, the history of collecting and archaeological ethics, pointed out that once relics are detached from their original cultural context, they lose a significant portion of their intrinsic historical information. Gill argues that a responsible collector should refrain from dealing in looted artifacts.  

The repatriation of numerous looted artifacts globally serves as a clear message to museums, collectors and auction houses to exercise caution and examine the provenance of objects before acquiring them. “Otherwise, their reputation may be damaged,” Gill said.  

In the UK, if museums buy looted objects, they lose government funding. In September 2023, the British Museum announced that it asked Tsirogiannis to examine its entire antiquities collection for looted artifacts as the troubled institution attempted to save its shattered reputation. However, as of January 2024, according to Tsirogiannis, the research has not yet begun and there are no further developments.  

Repatriation Efforts 
Statistics from the Chinese Cultural Relics Society indicate that due to wartime plundering or iniquitous trade since 1840, China has lost over 10 million Chinese cultural relics. UNESCO has estimated that around 1.67 million Chinese cultural relics are housed in over 200 museums in 47 countries, with millions more in private collections. Grave robbing and relic smuggling flourished in the late 20th century due to weak government supervision.  

Although UNESCO has treaties in place to protect cultural heritage, they do not work retroactively. The earliest international convention on protection of cultural property, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, dates from 1954, which only applies to states that are party to it. Other conventions in this area are from a later date.  

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, efforts have been made to retrieve lost national treasures. According to Weng Huainai from the National Museum of China, the country has recovered over 300 batches of more than 150,000 Chinese cultural relics lost overseas.  

Lü Weitao, an appraisal expert at the National Museum of China in Beijing, told NewsChina that in the past, repatriation was mainly facilitated through commercial repurchase or personal donation. Since the 21st century, China has shifted emphasis to diplomatic negotiations, legal recourse and international cooperation.  

Most Chinese experts agree that commercial repurchase should not be encouraged. According to Wang Yunxia, director of the Institute of Cultural Heritage Law at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, it not only interferes with the Chinese government’s recovery of cultural relics through diplomatic or legal channels, but also conveys the wrong message to looters and dealers of stolen cultural artifacts. This could drive up prices and further endanger the safety of cultural relics in their source countries.  

Over the past two decades, international cooperation has played a more important role in the return of lost cultural relics.  

Located in Quyang County, Hebei Province, the tomb of Wang Chuzhi (863–923), a military governor of the Tang and the Later Liang dynasties, was robbed in June 1996.  

In February 2000, a wall panel from the tomb resurfaced in a Christie’s auction catalogue in the US. The next month, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) sent a diplomatic note to the US Embassy in China to request the withdrawal of the object from auction and its return to China.  

Through collected evidence such as soil samples from the panel, the artifact was proven to have come from Wang Chuzhi’s tomb.  

The US filed a civil action suit in a New York district court seeking the forfeiture of the mural pursuant to the Cultural Properties Implementation Act and authorized US Customs to seize the sculpture.  

On May 26, 2001, the sculpture finally arrived in China. It was the first time China had successfully retrieved a lost cultural relic from an international auction.  

The repatriations of zodiac bronze heads from the international art market exemplify this change. In 1860, bronze animal heads that were part of the water clock designed by Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione for the Old Summer Palace were looted during the sack of Beijing by Anglo-French troops.  

They began to appear on the international art market in the 1980s. In 2000, the State-owned China Poly Group Corporation purchased the monkey, ox and tiger bronzes at auctions held by Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Then in 2003 and 2007, Macao casino tycoon Stanley Ho purchased the boar and horse bronzes and donated them to China.  

Realizing China’s eagerness to recover their lost relics, the prices for these bronzes, along with other Chinese artifacts, soared in just a few years. In October 2008, Christie’s announced that the rat and rabbit bronzes, part of French designer Yves Saint-Laurent’s collection, would be auctioned in Paris in February 2009.  

This triggered fury in China, where the public accused the auction house of a “second plundering.” SACH condemned the auction and opposed buying them back. A group of Chinese lawyers and the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe filed a lawsuit in Paris seeking an injunction, but were denied.  

The auction proceeded and the two bronzes were purchased by an anonymous telephone bidder for a total of 31 million euros. Hours after the sale, SACH officially condemned the auction and tightened controls on Christie’s activities in China. Unexpectedly, the winning bidder, Chinese collector Cai Mingchao, refused to pay the purchase price, claiming the bid was an attempt to sabotage the sale to protest on China’s behalf. Then in 2013, French fashion conglomerate billionaire François-Henri Pinault donated the two bronzes to China after purchasing them from Pierre Bergé, co-founder of the Yves Saint-Laurent label, for an undisclosed amount.  

A good bilateral relationship can benefit the repatriation process, said Lü Weitao, who cited the repatriation of 796 artifacts from Italy in March 2019. To date, China has signed bilateral agreements or memorandums of understanding on cultural property with 22 countries, including Peru, Italy, India, the Philippines, Chile, Greece, the US, Turkey, Egypt, Australia and Switzerland, according to SACH.  

The handscroll silk painting titled The Thirteen Emperors by Yan Liben from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) is housed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, US (Photo by VCG)

Silk painting Admonitions of the Imperial Instructress to Court Ladies, a replica of an original work by Eastern Jin Dynasty (317- 420) artist Gu Kaizhi, is housed in the British Museum in London (Photo by VCG)

Legal Conundrum 
Unfortunately, China and most other source countries of lost artifacts face legal difficulties at both the national and international level in retrieving them.  

The international legal framework for the return of stolen cultural artifacts is built on two pillar agreements: the UNESCO 1970 Convention and the UNIDROIT Convention of 1995.  

Despite their significance, their effectiveness has been limited: Ratified by 143 countries, the 1970 Convention has no retroactive effect, while the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention, though a marked improvement, has been ratified by only 54 countries, most of which are source countries.  

Their enforcement requires the identification of the source country of a looted artifact, which creates loopholes for smugglers and dealers. “What it means is that all these smugglers had to do was to get it out of its source country and erase that information [of exact country of origin], and when it shows up in the US, for example, the US can say it comes from the Eastern Mediterranean, from Western Europe, or from South America. As long as they don’t specify the nation state, then it’s beyond where law enforcement can go after it,” Professor Marlowe said. “Enforcement of law is very difficult, since museums pretend not to know the source country of a collection.”  

There are legal obstacles at the national level too. “The countries that have amassed all the looted and stolen treasures have laws and legal institutions, such as limitations and extinctive prescriptions, which would thwart most lawsuits seeking the return of the artifacts,” wrote Huo Zhengxin, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in an article for the China Daily newspaper in 2013. “What’s more, major market countries have passed laws to prevent the return of the looted treasures inventoried in public museums to their countries of origin,” Huo said.  

Given these multiple legal obstacles, according to Huo, it is not difficult to understand why countries such as China have not submitted formal requests for the return of their artifacts, and countries like Greece and Egypt have not succeeded in getting their treasures back despite their best efforts.  

In Professor Marlowe’s view, the conventions are largely meaningless without public support or awareness about the unethical attitudes of some museums or collectors buying and keeping looted artifacts.  

Fortunately, positive changes are taking place across the globe. Compared to the early stages after the passing of the 1970 Convention, when only experts really understood the problem, public attitudes have shifted. Collectors are forced to reconsider the ethics of their acquisitions. 

According to Marlowe, in the 1990s, collectors who bought illegal artifacts thought they were doing a good thing for the world by saving the objects. “But now, suddenly everyone’s telling them you’re very bad, you’re terrible, you’re immoral, you did the wrong thing, which caused those collectors to be very unsettled... The really interesting thing is the fact that young collectors are very unlikely to go into this [unethical] field anymore,” Marlowe said. “I don’t think they’re going to collect antiquities... I think they’re much more likely to collect from living artists who are selling their artworks.”  

A replica of a stone horse relief, Forest of Stone Steles Museum in Xi’an Shaanxi Province. The original, originally comissioned by Tang Dynasty (618-907) Emperor Taizong for his tomb, is housed in the Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania, US (Photo by VCG)

Road Ahead 
Compared with the vast number of lost Chinese cultural relics, few have been successfully recovered, which some attribute to a lack of experts in the field. Professor Wang Yunxia highlighted the need to step up the investigation and research into lost relics, especially their backgrounds, relevant transactions and current holders, and list them according to their cultural significance.  

Progress has been made. In 2008, Shanghai University established the Lost Overseas Cultural Relics Research Center, which has since established a basic data platform to collect first-hand information as to the whereabouts of lost relics abroad. According to Duan Yong, deputy secretary of the Party committee of Shanghai University, the center has cultivated professionals in archaeology, museum studies and other relevant backgrounds, and started university courses on overseas Chinese cultural relics.  

“We hope that the center can become a platform for international exchange and cooperation for overseas lost cultural relics,” Duan told China News Service in early 2022.  

Some European countries including France and Germany have been proactive in returning looted items to their countries of origin and have sped up the repatriation process. Professor Wang suggested that China should make full use of the new policy on the return of cultural relics from certain European countries, and actively participate in the identification and research into Chinese cultural relics illegally exported during its years under colonialism, and promote the cooperative repatriation of cultural relics.  

“Before successfully repatriating lost relics, we can strengthen cooperation with certain parties, such as participating in the restoration and research of the lost objects, holding exchange exhibitions, or requiring the sharing of digital achievements with certain parties, so as to promote exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations,” Wang said.