Relic Comes Home

An ancient marble sculpture looted from the tomb of a governor in the Five Dynasties era (AD 907-960) finally made it home on Saturday.

The bas-relief carving was one of 10 looted from the tomb of Wang Chuzhi seven years ago and since then it has been moved from place to place in China and then abroad for one and a half years.

On Monday it was displayed for the first time to audience in its motherland at the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing.

The US Customs Service returned the painted 10th-century relief sculpture, looted from Wang’s tomb in Xiyanchuan Village of Quyang County, North China’s Hebei Province, to China last week at a ceremony in New York after being seized at a Christie's auction house.

The sculpture is listed in the "most valuable category" in China's classification of cultural relics.

Rare relics

Despite its age, the guardian sculpture is still in fairly good condition.

The guardian is depicted with a red robe, golden helmet and green Armour. He holds a long sword and stands on the back of a bull.

A phoenix dances behind the warrior, adding a touch of mystery to the overall effect.

The 144-centimetre long, 58-centimetre wide sculpture is a rare, well-preserved artifact that forms a link between the art styles of two dynasties, said Sun Ji, a researcher with the Museum of Chinese History.

Historical records suggest that Wang was a high official that died in AD 923, having served rulers of both the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and Later Liang, of the Five Dynasties.

The decoration in Wang's tomb followed the imperial Tang Dynasty model, with lively painted wall murals lining passageways and tomb chambers, Sun said.

Tang painting was mostly figurative. But the design of Wang's tomb, though essentially in a Tang style, anticipated future artistic developments.

There were 18 painted marble relief sculptures in Wang's tomb, which was a complex of rooms arranged on a north-south axis, accessed via a ramp from the south.

Archaeologists said there should be two guardian sculptures at the gateway of the tomb, two official sculptures in the room in front of the coffin chamber, 12 sculptures of the 12 symbolic animals of the Earthly Branches on the wall of the coffin chamber, and two sculptures featuring female musicians on the wall of the room behind the coffin chamber.

But much of Wang's tomb had been looted prior to excavation in 1995. Only eight painted marble relief sculptures survived, including six of the 12 symbolic animals and two female musician sculptures.

Return of treasure

Looking at the catalogue of a Christie's auction house in New York in February last year, a visiting scholar from Beijing found a sculpture he suspected to be the one looted from Wang's tomb. He immediately informed both the State and Hebei provincial administrations of cultural heritage.

They sought help from the US authorities and the International Criminal Police Organization.

The Chinese officials filed papers and provided evidence to show the sculpture had been stolen from Wang's tomb.

Federal authorities then blocked the sale and filed papers in the Southern District Court of New York to try to formally recover the sculpture.

Attorney Mary Jo White said in court papers she was seeking the return of the sculpture to China because it is a cultural property taken from a relic site under State protection and removed from China illegally.

Its value is estimated at between US$400,000-500,000, the court papers said.

The court action "serves notice to traffickers in looted antiquities that these national treasures will be seized and returned to their rightful owners," said Raymond W. Kelly, customs service commissioner.

The US court paper said the marble figure sculpture was transported into the United States by a Korean Air 312 airline in July 25, 1999, with a declared value of US$140,000.

The court paper said that in December 1999, a Hong Kong gallery consigned the sculpture to Christie's for a March 2000 auction.

Pictures in the auction house catalogue helped cultural experts identify the piece as one of the stolen sculptures.

In the catalogue, the sculpture was described as appearing "to be painted and carved marble wall panels from the Five Dynasties tomb of Wang Chuzhi."

Joel Gunderson, a spokesman for Christie's, said the auction house withdrew the object from its Asian art sale when it learned it might be a stolen relic.

The seizure of the sculpture marks a rare triumph over international art smugglers who are systematically robbing imperial Chinese tombs, sometimes destroying them in the process by using explosives.

After negotiations with the United States, Chinese officials finally saw the return of the sculpture.

A Chinese official said: "Such relics cannot belong to one individual. They are the property of the Chinese people."

Chinese and US authorities are working together to track down the smugglers who brought the sculpture to an art gallery in Hong Kong, a common route to Western markets for objects stolen from ancient tombs in China.

Most Chinese grave robbers' loot usually ends up in expensively decorated living rooms on New York's "Upper East Side."

Another guardian sculpture in Wang's tomb was returned to China in June last year by a US collector who found that one of his artifacts was a sculpture stolen from Wang's tomb.

Now the two sculptures are being displayed together at the Museum of Chinese History.

The whereabouts of the other eight sculptures looted from Wang's tomb are still unknown. Officials with the Ministry of Public Security said they would continue to investigate.

Anti-smuggling effort

Grave robbing has increased sharply in the past 10 years alongside the expanding market economy, as more people look to business to create personal wealth.

Education, especially art education, is lagging far behind, and this means people are less aware of the need for cultural relics protection.

According to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, more than 40,000 tombs were reported robbed between 1989 and 1990.

Chinese Customs officials said that between 1981 and 1989 they investigated 3,081 cases of artifact smuggling, and confiscated 70,226 items. From 1991 to 94, Chinese Customs confiscated 46,000 items.

In 1997, Chinese Customs investigated more than 600 artifact smuggling cases and confiscated 11,200 items.

China has imposed restrictions on the export of cultural relics. Since the 1950s, it has signed three international covenants on the prevention of the outflow of cultural items.

Chinese authorities typically mete out severe punishments to any smugglers they catch.

Earlier in 2000, three men were executed for stealing 15 Tang Dynasty murals, but important antiquities continue to flow through China's porous boundaries.

Millions of Chinese relics can be found in more than 200 museums in 47 foreign countries. Most of them were stolen at a time when foreign countries occupied parts of China, mainly after the Opium War in 1840.

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art reportedly has the lion's share of Chinese paintings removed from China, but the British Museum is said to have the best collection of Chinese paintings, including some rare and high-quality ancient collections.

The French Guimet Museum reportedly has the finest collection of Chinese ceramics and pottery, some of the cream of all the dynasties' relics.

Over the past few years, central government and non-governmental organizations have stepped up attempts to track down relics, which have been smuggled out of the country.

In 1999, China successfully brought back more than 3,000 Chinese relics from the United Kingdom in line with international covenants.

This April, the Canadian National Museum returned a bas-relief statue to China, which was stolen decades ago from the Longmen Grottoes in Central China's Henan Province.

(China Daily 05/31/2001)