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Long journey comes to an end for ancient figures
Latest Updated by 2003-07-07 15:40:54

A group of six ancient Chinese pottery figures, smuggled out of the country and nearly auctioned in New York in March of last year, returned last Wednesday (July 2nd) to the embrace of their homeland in Xi'an, the capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

The returned Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) relics will be put on display for public viewing at the exhibition hall at the Hanyang Mausoleum in the western suburbs of Xi'an in a month, after experts have completed working on the necessary storage procedures, according to Xiang De, deputy director of the Xi'an Bureau of Cultural Heritage.

The museum curators hope that the exhibition will raise the public's awareness of cultural heritage protection and share with visitors the difficult journey the curators undertook to recover these lost cultural relics.

Tomb robbery

At the eastern suburbs of Xi'an, there lies the Baling Mausoleum of Emperor Wendi of the Western Han Dynasty. The dynasty's third emperor Wendi and his son Jingdi ruled for 40 years and created an era of prosperity during that period of ancient Chinese history. Although no official archaeological excavations have ever been conducted there, historians maintain that there must be a wealth of treasures in the mausoleum to reflect an age of social, economic and cultural development.

Unfortunately, it also became a target for tomb raiders.

On April 27, 2001, Xin Laihu and Gao Sile, villagers of Dizhai Village in Baqiao District, in collusion with five local farmers, drilled a hole inside the mausoleum's grounds.

They then blew the hole apart into a 35-metre-deep vertical pit, with 50 kilograms of explosives they had purchased.

Two days later, when they went there again along with accomplices for further excavation after purchasing a series of special tools, three were arrested on the spot by the local police. Xin Laihu and the other two escaped, owing to their familiarity with the area.

However, the pit remained.

On October 16, 2001, Zhang Xiaoyan, Huang Shimin and several other people from Qishan County visited the spot and, after considerable effort, entered the corridor of what turned out to be the tomb chamber of Empress Dou, Emperor Wendi's wife.

They took away four grey pottery figures, which were later sold at a price of 300 yuan (US$36) for each piece.

In the following days, the gang stole another 200 pottery figures, quickly selling them off. Each of them made off with roughly 4,600 yuan (US$554) in ill-gotten profits.
In December of that year, Zhang and Huang made another attempt on the property and this time took away 71 coloured figurines of nude female servants.

When reports came that the original hole had been extended wider and deeper, the local police extended their investigation beyond the original crater.

By February 2002, authorities made breakthroughs after some gang members confessed to their crimes.

They not only arrested Zhang Xiaoyan, Huang and the rest of his gang of tomb raiders, but also detained members of two other rings of thieves who had also visited the tomb chamber, removing eight grey nude pottery figures.

Hard work resulted in the recovery of two of the eight grey nude pottery figures. The confessions also revealed the spoils of the thieves' looting, including a large number of nude male and female grey pottery figures which are considered rare in China.

In Guangzhou, the capital of South China's Guangdong Province, police scouts recovered 34 nude male and female pottery figures, which were believed to have come from the tomb of Empress Dou of the Western Han Dynasty. Together with the pottery figures was a March 20 auction catalogue of Sotheby's.


On March 18, 2002, Liu Yongzheng, an official with the Public Security Department of the Cultural Relics Bureau of Shaanxi Province, thumbed through the original edition of Sotheby's auction catalogue of Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art obtained from the police. Lot 32 drew his attention, due to its close resemblance of the two previously recovered grey pottery figures.

So, Liu translated the explanatory note under the picture of Lot 32, and its description further piqued his curiosity about the six pottery figures ready for auction between 10:15 am and 2 pm on March 20 in New York.

The situation was critical, with two nights left to go before Lot 32 was to go under the gavel.

Liu borrowed a digital camera and took photos respectively of the catalogue's Lot 32 as well as the two recovered pottery figures.

Meanwhile, Hou Yangmin and He Zhenwu, two experts of cultural relics appraisal from the provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, provided Liu with their written appraisals after they carefully compared the grey pottery figures on the catalogue with the two that had been recovered earlier.

Though many naked pottery figures had been excavated previously from the Hanyang Mausoleum at the western suburbs of Xi'an, most of them were white or coloured. The grey ones were very rare and should enter the national list of precious cultural relics, according to the experts.

Hou concluded in his appraisal that the eight grey pottery figures had been excavated from the same site and the six in Lot 32 had probably been stolen and smuggled out of China.

On the evening of March 19, Liu sent the photos and written evidence via an e-mail to the Ministry of Public Security, which then immediately notified the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC.

Immediate action

From there, the Chinese Embassy in Washington immediately took action.

Yang Jiechi, China's ambassador to United States, decided to work on two lines: Yang himself drew up a note to the US Customs Service, while Duan Daqi, the first secretary of the Chinese embassy, made direct contacts with New York Customs and Sotheby's.

Just 20 minutes before the auction started off, Duan was able to present to Sotheby's the official notification and the accompanying documents and persuaded the auction house to cancel the bidding on Lot 32.

Despite the successful suspension of bidding on Lot 32, the American side insisted that the evidence provided by Chinese officials was not convincing enough.

On July 9, 2002, the US Customs Service wrote to China's Centre Bureau of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and demanded that Chinese authorities provide supplementary materials proving the authenticity of the group of grey nude pottery figures. US Customs posed 11 questions on the matter, which were all elaborate and required a great deal of supporting evidence.

The local Shaanxi police set to work, sorting out inspection records and photos of the tomb robbery scenes, as well as their investigative reports that have served as judicial evidence, since the gang members had already been officially charged.

At the same time, the Shaanxi Cultural Relics Bureau collected and collated the relevant materials about the tomb of Empress Dou, while the Xi'an Cultural Relics Protection and Recovery Centre conducted carbon dating studies on the two recovered pottery figures.

Jiao Nanfeng, head of Shaanxi Archaeology Research Institute, prepared detailed answers to all of the 11 questions.

The incontrovertible evidence finally convinced US officials that the six pottery figures indeed came from Xi'an, China.

On June 17, at the handover ceremony held at the Chinese Consulate in New York, the US Customs Service formally gave the six pottery figures back to China, thus ending the pottery figures' long odyssey.

"This is another successful case of recovering smuggled cultural relics based on international conventions," said Qu Shengrui, an official with the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, who was in charge of the project for recovering lost cultural heritage items.

According to Qu, the administration will play a more active role in the future recovery of cultural relics smuggled abroad, with a special fund set up of 50 million yuan (US$6 million) a year.

China Cultural Relics News has contributed to this article.

Editor: Wing

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