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U.S. Seeks Return of Stolen Chinese Wall Panel March 30, 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Tenth-century marble wall panel sculpture of a guardian stolen from a Chinese tomb in 1994 (Courtesy U.S. Customs) [LARGER IMAGE]

A tenth-century Chinese sculptured wall panel is the subject of a civil forfeiture action under the Cultural Properties Implementation Act. The action, announced yesterday by U.S. Customs, seeks return of a guardian scuplture, stolen from the Five Dynasties (A.D. 906-960) tomb of Wang Chuzhi in Hebei Province in 1994, on the grounds that it is protected cultural property stolen from a state-owned cultural site and was illegally removed from China and ultimately transported into the United States.

According to the forfeiture complaint, as summarized in a U.S. Customs press release, Quyang County police heard on June 20, 1994, that the tomb had been vandalized, inspected the site and found that approximately ten pieces of relief sculpture had been taken. In December 1999 a Hong Kong gallery consigned the sculpture to Christie's in Manhattan for auction on March 20. The sculpture was identified from photographs in the auction catalog as from the tomb of Wang Chuzhi. In cooperation with Chinese government officials, Customs agents in New York, Washington, and Beijing established probable cause to initiate a civil forfeiture action by the U.S. Attorney's Office and seizure of the sculpture by Customs. The panel remains at Christie's for now; no arrests have been made in China.

While it is difficult to place a dollar value on the Chinese antiquities market, Chinese statistics suggest the illegal trade is brisk. According to the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, more than 40,000 tombs were reported robbed between 1989 and 1990. People's republic of China customs officials say that between 1981 and 1989 they investigated 3,081 cases of artifact smuggling and confiscated 70,226 items (see "Stealing China's Past," November/December 1995). Chinese authorities typically mete out draconian punishments to any smugglers they apprehend. Earlier this year, three men were executed for stealing 15 Tang Dynasty murals (see "Chinese Thieves Executed, but Loot Remains at Large," February 2, 2000), but important antiquities continue to flow through China's porous boundaries (see "Plundering the Three Gorges," May 14, 1998, and "Gansu Getaway," September/October 1998).

The cooperation of Chinese authorities in this case and another involving the return of Buddhist statuary (see "Off with their Heads," October 28, 1999) has given some cause to believe that China's former laissez-faire attitude toward the illicit excavation and exporting of antiquities is coming to an end. "There seems to be more sensitivity now in China toward issues of cultural heritage," says Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, a New York-based art historian. Childs-Johnson says she was "startled" to see wall panel up for auction in the Christie's catalog because "it's such a high quality artwork...a national treasure." She says its appearance on the auction block immediately raised questions in her mind as to its provenience.

Mary Jo White, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, commented on the current case, "Commencement of this action seeking the return of this precious artifact to the People's Republic of China demonstrates the continuing resolve of the law enforcement community in the U.S. to work closely together with other nations to stem the tide of illegal trafficking in stolen cultural property."

"This action serves notice to traffickers in looted antiquities that these national treasures will be seized and return to their rightful owners," says Raymond W. Kelly, Commisioner of the United States Customs Service.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America