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Gansu Getaway Volume 51 Number 5, September/October 1998
by Lawrence R. Sullivan

[image] Bronze Spirit Tree on exhibit in New York (William Cunningham/NYT Pictures) [LARGER IMAGE]

A man Chinese authorities say robbed a rich Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) burial of a dazzling bronze candelabrum escaped from a Gansu Province jail after bribing a warden with 500,000 yuan ($62,500). The candelabrum was sold for $2.5 million in March at the International Asian Art Fair in New York. It is nearly five feet tall, shaped like a spruce tree, and is considered an extremely rare example of a bronze Spirit Tree symbolizing immortality. Research on bronze candelabra by art historian Elizabeth Childs-Johnson of New York University has revealed that the Spirit Tree belongs to an ancient tradition of mortuary furnishings native to Sichuan Province. Because the bronze was discovered almost perfectly intact and is unique, experts in China say it is of national importance.

Chinese authorities became aware of the artifact when it was displayed at the fair by Belgian art dealer Gisèle Croës, who sold it to New York collector Leon Black. When photographs of the object reached China, cultural relics officials presumed it had been robbed from a tomb in the Three Gorges Region of the Yangtze River, site of construction of a massive dam (see "Race Against Time," November/December 1996). Because salvage archaeologists there have not received funding for four years, excavations in advance of the project have ground to a halt. Meanwhile, the Chinese press reports that the area has been devastated by looters, who collect pieces churned up by contractors working on dam-related construction projects. More sophisticated pillagers are said to be equipped with cellphones (see "Plundering the Three Gorges" from ARCHAEOLOGY Online.)

Wang Yucheng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has identified the Spirit Tree as coming from an exceptionally rich Han burial at the ancient site of Jiangdongzui in Wushan County, Sichuan Province. Ironically, the burial had been discovered in 1995 and preliminarily investigated by archaeologists, who urged immediate excavation.

In October 1997, a Chinese newspaper reported that a team of looters led by Tang Erxiong of Gansu Province ransacked the tomb, reportedly selling the Spirit Tree to an unknown buyer for 200,000 yuan ($25,000). Police soon arrested Tang and his accomplices.

Detail of a feng, a decorative motif common to ancient Chinese candelabra (Courtesy Sichuan Provincial Cultural Relics and Archaeological Institute) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Childs-Johnson says the Spirit Tree belongs to one of two decorative types related to those cast in Sichuan as far back as the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1700-1100 B.C.). The first type, known as a Money Tree, is named after Han coin shapes in the form of sunbursts or pistils of flowers that decorate the tree's branches. Many small images of a deity known as the Goddess of the West also decorate Money Trees.

In Metamorphic Imagery in Early China (in press), Childs-Johnson writes that the Spirit Tree is characterized not by goddess images but by minute representations of immortals and cicadas, longstanding symbols of rebirth in early China. Its base is composed of two intertwined dragons, and its branches hold numerous feng, a legendary bird resembling a male peacock. The feng tail feathers curl upward.

The Spirit Tree's branches hold numerous floral candle saucers, evidence that it was intended to light the burial crypt for the spirit after death. Childs-Johnson adds that an early version of the Spirit Tree was found at the Shang (1700-1100 B.C.) site of Sanxingdui in Sichuan. Although only partially intact, it has branches laden with feng and resembles the tree sold in New York.

China and the United States are both signatories to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Under this agreement, China may be able to pursue the return of the Spirit Tree in U.S. courts.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America