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Cultural Relics on Their Way Home

Cultural relics as remnants of history, are regarded as records of the rise and fall of a nation.

Many Chinese cultural relics, which have been scattered around the world over the last century, have started to return home to the collections of Chinese cultural institutions, enterprises and residents over the past decade.

This wave of returning artifacts has aroused issues concerning the protection of China's cultural heritage and the development of the antique market in the country.

"The hot art market has contributed to the current 'tidal wave', among other factors," said Kou Qin, assistant general manager of the Beijing-based China Guardian Auction Co.

More than 30 per cent of the art works appearing at the company's autumn auction were collected from overseas.

The coming Guardian auction couldn't be taking place at a better time. The Chinese art market showed signs of heating up again a fortnight ago, when an album of flower-and-bird paintings by Chinese artist Qi Baishi (1863-1957) hit a controversially high price of 16.61 million yuan (US$2 million).

The price was 10 times the record price Qi's work fetched in global art circles in 1998.

"The rise in the price of artwork in its home country, and the forthcoming return of the country's relics from overseas have been a natural result of the economic boom," said Zhang Yongnian, director of the non-governmental China Cultural Relics Recovery Fund. "It occurred in Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) when Japanese and Korean art pieces began to return from overseas in the 1980s and 1990s."

Like other ancient civilizations, China has seen many cultural relics taken overseas when the country was subjected to wars and international bullying, said Zhang.

In 1860, invading British and French armies looted and burned down the Old Summer Palace, which was known then as the "garden of gardens."

In 1900, the invading British, American, German, French, Russian, Japanese, Italian and Austrian troops sparked looting throughout Beijing, including the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, temples and mausoleums, government offices and residential houses.

"Items housed in Beijing from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) to date, from historical files to national treasures, have been swept away," according to official documents from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Of the numerous cultural relics that were taken out of the country in the 100 years after the First Opium War (1840-42), a large number are now stored at major public museums in Europe and the United States, said Lin Shuzhong, a professor with the Nanjing Academy of Arts.

For instance, relics from the Old Summer Palace have been showcased in the British Museum and the Fontainebleau Art Museum in France.

The relics that have returned mostly come from individual collectors and private museums, said Zhang.

Zhang said there are three major ways for a country to recover cultural relics from overseas collections: to apply international conventions, to purchase them and to get them back as donations.

Difficult homecoming

Some Chinese experts argue that the country should stop buying pilfered cultural relics and simply ask for them to be returned by applying international conventions.

China signed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 1970 and the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects in 1995.

Many signatory countries, such as China, Egypt and Greece, hope to recover cultural objects stolen from their countries under those conventions.

But unfortunately the countries with the most valuable cultural relics from other countries, especially developing ones, including the United States and Britain, have not signed the two conventions.

International institutions have made several major donations and returned Chinese cultural relics to their home since 1949.

In 1951 and 1954 the Leningrad University, the Lenin Library and the Soviet Union Academy of Sciences opened their collections and returned 64 volumes of the 600-year-old Yongle Encyclopedia to the Chinese Government.

China has also bought cultural relics back, said Zhang.

Statistics provided by the Chinese Society of Cultural Relics show that more than 3,000 cultural relics came from overseas in 2002 and were sold in China, but no statistics were given on whether they stayed in the country.

Among them a large part were brought to the Chinese market by auctioneers, according to society.

"The shortage in relic supplies spurred us on to search overseas," said Kou Qin.

Kou said that in 1993 and 1994, the first two or three auction houses founded in Beijing sold art works which were mainly confiscated from households during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). The owners of the relics couldn't be found after the turbulent 10-year period.

Some senior collectors also had pieces in their collection auctioned off so that they would be able to move out of their shabby quarters into larger and better houses or apartments.

In 1996, the number of auction houses in Beijing was more than 20.

However, art collectors have declined to sell more pieces after they had moved into larger houses. The additional cash they earned from auctions had found no ideal channel for investments.

Meanwhile, State-owned antique shops, a major supplier for auctioneers, could provide less and less real relics.

As the supply problems became apparent, the auctioneers have turned to parts of the country they had neglected, such as East China's Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, and also to overseas.

Private contributions

Many collectors of Chinese art in Europe and the United States are Chinese who left the country before 1949.

"As all are above 70, they have to decide the fate of their collections -- either to donate them to foreign museums, to leave them to descendants or to return them to China," said Kou.

"Deep in their hearts, many of them would prefer to return the relics if they can be well-preserved in the country."

Among the collectors is Weng Wan'ge, descendant of Weng Tonghe (1830-1904). The latter, a renowned scholar, was a tutor of Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The old man cried with happiness in 2000 when "Weng's books" -- the family's collection of ancient books and the most famous collection of its kind in the last two centuries -- were sold prior to auction to the Shanghai Library.

"I wandered throughout the Americas, thinking of my family's books which I have said goodbye to. I cannot help missing them, but feel relieved that they are back in the motherland," said Weng in his congratulatory letter following the deal.

The rise in price of cultural relics in China has also helped collectors to make up their minds, said Kou.

The price of ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphic works in China has exceeded that in the New York or London art markets, but the price in ceramics and jewelry still remains lower, he said.

The record price of Chinese paintings was set last year, when a painting by 12th-century Emperor Huizong was sold for 23 million yuan (US$2.77 million) at a Beijing auction.

But the painting, owned by a Japanese collector prior to the auction, allegedly went to a US museum.

"Some Chinese institutions showed interest prior to the auction, but they estimated the price would stay below 15 million yuan (US$1.8 million)," said Kou.

When the relics are pushed to the Chinese market, the booming purchase power in art makes it possible for them to stay, said Kou.

A new generation of art collectors has appeared in China, said Yi Suhao, general manager of the Sungari International Auction Co.

Meanwhile, business giants like the Poly Group and the Shide Group have been buying cultural relics from abroad. The former is giving an exhibition in Beijing of the four copper sculptures of animal heads in its collection, which were looted by invading British and French troops from the Old Summer Palace in 1860.

To encourage businesses to get involved in helping bring the relics home, the China Cultural Relics Recovery Fund was founded last year.

Businesses making donations to the fund get tax exemptions, which are approved by the central government. The fund has been the first and the only art foundation in China that enjoys such a policy widely adopted in Europe and the United States.

Chinese public museums have also delved into the market. In July, the Palace Museum in Beijing bought the ancient calligraphy work of Eulogy of Launching the Campaign (Chushi Song) for 22 million yuan (US$2.65 million).

However, Fu Xinian, a renowned researcher on cultural relics, pointed out that the price of the four volumes of Model Letters from the Imperial Archive in the Chunhua Reign (Chunhuage Tie) calligraphy collection, which were bought by the Shanghai Museum from a US collector in August, had been driven up in heated competition from several Chinese public museums.

This is "a dangerous tendency of public museums in China of bidding against each other with taxpayers' money when they buy back Chinese cultural relics from overseas," Fu said.

(China Daily November 19, 2003)

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