NYT, April 1, 2006
Saving Chinese Artifacts: A Slow Fight
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
[image] The International Asian Art Fair, which runs through Wednesday,
attracts dealers from around the world.
SHANGHAI, March 31 — In China's headlong rush to modernize, few things
have been so neglected as its past.
Compared with, say, neighbors like Japan and South Korea, this much
larger country has rarely done a good job preserving ancient
architecture. And despite the incomparable riches of Chinese
civilization, world-class museums here are few and far between.
[image] Art lovers and collectors at the International Asian Art Fair,
part of Asia Week in New York.
For decades, collectors seeking a precious piece of China's past have
found overseas markets to be the best bet — like the auctions and
antiques fairs of Asia Week, an annual event that has attracted droves
of collectors to New York in recent days. For indignant Chinese
officials and archaeologists, such sales are a testament to smugglers'
skill in funneling antiquities out of the country and into markets where
they will fetch top dollar.
According to some estimates, some 300,000 to 400,000 tombs have been
raided in China in the last quarter-century of accelerating
capitalist-style development. Although the numbers of looted items are
much fuzzier, experts say, the most valuable ones have made their way to
the West, with the bulk going to the United States.
For years, China has asked the United States to join its campaign
against antiquities smuggling, most recently pressing Washington to
adopt a ban on imports of any art or artifact predating 1911, the end of
the Qing dynasty. Progress on the issue has been slow, however, partly
because of fierce objections from art dealers and collectors.
Nicole Deaner, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of
Educational and Cultural Affairs, said yesterday that China's request
was still under consideration and that there was no timetable for when a
decision would be made.
Recently there has been a bit of movement on other fronts. In January,
China and Italy signed a treaty providing for a new task force of
Chinese special agents who will travel to Italy to receive training from
the Italian military police in identifying and tracking cultural
artifacts. The two countries also plan a rapid exchange of information
about suspected smuggled goods. Chinese experts differ widely on the
long-term prospects for controlling the trade in contraband antiques.
Yet they agree that the looting of important archaeological sites has
slowed somewhat over the last decade.
"It's impossible to absolutely stop this sort of thing, but the
mid-1990's was the crazy peak for this market," said He Shuzhong, an
official of the State Cultural Heritage Administration, which has been
involved in the talks with the United States on tightening import
restrictions. "If you look now at the tomb-raiding problem, and you look
at the new pieces on the overseas market, things are better than they
were 10 years ago. Tomb raiding, although it still exists, and exists
seriously in some areas, has decreased by at least half."
Mr. He cited steps taken recently by China to rein in the trade, like
new requirements that auction houses and antiques dealers reapply
annually for the extension of their licenses. Motion-sensing and
satellite-based technology are now used to monitor the best-known sites,
and volunteers have been recruited to police them, particularly in the
Still, he said, the most effective remedy would be an American import
ban on antiques, adding that he was "annoyed and unsatisfied by
People who do not work for the government agree that the market for
illicit antiquities has dried up somewhat. "Smuggling was at its peak
between the 1980's and mid-1990's, but now it's relatively subdued,"
said Ma Weidu, owner and founder of Guanfu, China's first private museum
of classic and antique art, in Beijing. "If you went to Hollywood Road
in Hong Kong back then, you could see lots of antiquities displayed
right there on the street, and they were genuine. Go there today, and
you find lots of copies."
As recently as a few years ago, he said, "no one really cared" when
excavation work for a big construction project uncovered antiquities,
"given the heavy emphasis on economic development."
"Today, when a construction crew hits an ancient site," Mr. Ma said,
"the project will be paused, or forced to take a detour."
Still, Mr. Ma estimated that 20 percent of the items he viewed in
overseas auctions of Chinese rarities left the country under illegal
Lu Jianrong, a professor in the department of heritage, culture and
museum science at Fudan University, in Shanghai, said there was little
ground for optimism, although he supports the treaty with Italy, which
he sees as largely symbolic.
"There is obviously a deep socioeconomic background to this, because our
country is in a transition period, and from the perspective of city,
county or provincial leaders, the focus should be on people's living
standards," he said.
"Antiquities are just not part of the focus," he added, "especially in
central and western China, where the living standards are just too low,
and where for some, the easiest way to make a living is still to dig
Randy Kennedy contributed reporting from New York for this article.
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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