On April 11 this year, an ancient Chinese bronze “tiger” container believed to have been looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing by the Anglo-French invasion force back in 1860 was sold by the Canterbury Auction Galleries in the UK for 410,000 pounds (US$570,575).
Beijing had strongly protested against the private sale of this exceptionally rare artifact. There was nothing else it could have done.
Private sales of cultural artifacts are strictly regulated under the existing Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, concluded in 1970, and the Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, signed in 1995. However, the two international treaties are not retrospective.
In other words, sales of cultural relics which were found, excavated or sacked before the conclusion of the two treaties, like the bronze artifact recently sold in the UK, are not prohibited under the existing legal framework.
Nor can countries where these relics were stolen invoke either of the treaties to demand their return.
According to statistics provided by the China Cultural Relics Academy, it is estimated that since the First Opium War in 1840, more than 10 million pieces of Chinese artifacts have been smuggled out of the mainland.
For the Chinese people, the loss of the priceless treasures was a national trauma and a historical humiliation.
Ironically, the cultural relics are much better off in the hands of foreigners. Most of these treasures are now being kept by private collectors and in world-renowned museums under excellent conditions, whereas many of the relics found in China were destroyed during the civil war and the Cultural Revolution.
Between 1966 and 1976, when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, over 10 million households across China were ransacked by the Red Guards. Countless artifacts such as ancient paintings, books, porcelain and accessories were either burned or destroyed.
One can gauge the enormity of that cultural catastrophe by comparing the official records on the number of historical sites found in Beijing before and after the Cultural Revolution.
In 1958, a total of 6,843 historical sites were documented in the Chinese capital. However, between August and September in 1966 alone, a staggering 4,922 of them were completely destroyed.
The Red Guards were not solely to blame for all the destruction of those priceless relics. Many civilians at the time took it upon themselves to destroy the artifacts they had in their homes lest the “criminal proofs” be found by the Red Guards.
Even after 1978, when China launched its far-reaching economic reforms, the deliberate and inadvertent destruction of cultural artifacts by illegal dealers and tomb raiders remained rampant across the country.
Countries that originally owned these artifacts may have a strong case for demanding their return, invoking justice and citing moral grounds. But there are also a lot of voices in the West against returning the relics.
In December 2002, 19 prominent western museums, including the Louvre and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, published a joint statement on the issue.
In that statement, the museums rejected the idea of returning the foreign artifacts in their collections to their countries of origin on the grounds that they, as international museums, not only serve the local public but peoples from all over the world.
Some archaeological experts also agree that these priceless artifacts would probably be better off where they are now – in world-class museums where they can be constantly maintained, repaired and protected by the world’s top experts in the field.
But, of course, China has come a long way from being the poor and backward country that it was decades ago.
And given its rapidly growing political and economic power, Beijing has become a lot more aggressive and vocal in recent years when it comes to protecting Chinese cultural artifacts and preventing them from ending up on foreign soil.
It would take a long time for China to reclaim its ancient relics in foreign possession through legal proceedings.
I believe the most efficient way for the Chinese government to get these treasures back is to call upon patriotic tycoons to buy them back from western collectors and auction houses and then donate them to the state.
As a matter of fact, several business tycoons like Stanley Ho Hung-sun and Xu Rongmao have done just that.
For people with deep pockets like them, it is definitely worth the little money and effort they have put in.
They will not only gain favor with our paramount leaders and get a lot of media mileage for their good deeds; they would also – and this is infinitely more important – go down in history as “selfless patriots”.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 20
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
– Contact us at [email protected]