Chinese pool personal money and resources to buy back artifacts lost overseas

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/12 19:13:39

China doesn’t encourage individuals to retrieve stolen relics: official

Grass-roots efforts are helping hunt down lost and stolen Chinese relics overseas

By purchasing such items with their own money or even through lawsuits, Chinese people around the world are bringing lost antiques home

The return of looted treasures has been praised by State media and seen as a symbol of rising national power

Tourists visit the ruins of Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing. Photo: VCG

An extremely rare Chinese bronze vessel that was allegedly looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, by a British officer in 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-60) was sold on April 11 for 410,000 pounds ($582,446) at the Canterbury Auction Galleries in Kent, a southeast town in the UK.

The bronze, known as Tiger Ying, is an ancient wine vessel dating back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC). According to the auction house, the name comes from the unique tiger decorations on its lid and spout. Only nine similar vessels are known to exist.

Prior to the auction, China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage slammed the auction house for the sale and asked it to respect the cultural rights and feelings of the Chinese people, demanding the auction and related promotional activities be canceled.

Such news aroused anger from the Chinese public as well. Individuals and grass-roots social groups are becoming more aware and passionate about retrieving lost Chinese artifacts, many of which were looted from China during past invasions and wars.

According to statistics from the China Cultural Relics Academy, since the first Opium War in 1840, more than 10 million Chinese cultural relics were lost to Europe, US, Japan and Southeast Asia.

British art expert Alastair Gibson and auctioneer Cliona Kilroy pose with the sacred Chinese bronze wine vessel Tiger Ying, which was allegedly looted from the Old Summer Palace, before its auction. Photo: VCG

Pooling resources

There are different ways of bringing relics that were lost overseas back home to China. UNESCO conventions, bilateral agreements between countries and diplomatic talks are among the strategies. Grass-roots efforts, however, rely on commercial purchases.

Though based in the US, Zhao Sihong, author of a book about Chinese immigrants to the US and also the secretary-general of Chinese-American Collectors Association, is an experienced collector of lost Chinese artifacts.

In 1998, with the encouragement of Anna Chan Chennault, the late widow of Flying Tiger's general, Zhao established a dedicated team of her book's readers who pooled their talents and resources to do charity work.

In 2005, Zhao read that China had established a fund to specifically recover lost relics overseas, which got her thinking that she could also do some work in this area.

"There are many relics lost overseas and it's painful, especially for us overseas Chinese, to see. We want them all returned home," she told the Global Times.

Her team consists of thousands of volunteers both in and outside the US who are united in their efforts to find and recover lost Chinese relics. Some, for example, prowl overseas antique shops, then pool their money together to purchase their findings.

Over the past 12 years, Zhao and her team have collected over 5,000 artifacts, usually with their own money, which they then donate to museums or libraries back in China, such as the National Museum of China and the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

Browsing antique shops

Zhao recalls a particularly meaningful artifact that her team recovered in 2016, the Collier's World Atlas and Gazetteer.

In July 2016, after the results of the South China Sea arbitration, Zhao's team went on a hunt for this lost book in San Francisco, searching through every used bookstore, antique shop and flea market in the area.

After just two days, a local collector called up Zhao saying he had found the lost map, which shows that the South China Sea islands belong to China. Zhao later purchased and donated the map to the Chinese foreign ministry.

Another prized recovery was a vinyl record of Sun Yat-sen's only audio speech. Zhao and her group found three sets of the record and donated them to three museums.

"There are so many relics and artifacts that were looted out of China. Selling and buying them at foreign auctions only encourages foreign forces," Zhao said. "Governments should place more emphasis on retrieving such stolen relics and returning them to China. Grass-roots efforts like ours can play a supporting role recovering items that were lost through collectors' channels."

The Ruian Museum Society in East China's Zhejiang Province has established a reputation for bringing home lost relics. In 2015, the museum held an exhibition of 154 retrieved Chinese antiques that had once been in circulation in US and Europe.

One of the museum's directors, Jin Jianxin, has been collecting porcelain, jade and copper items from European auction houses and foreign antique shops for the past 10 years.

He told Ruian Daily that while browsing an overseas antique market once, he saw many Chinese relics. He and his brother there and then decided to start saving their money so that they could buy back these stolen treasures and return them to China.

"It's my greatest wish for all Chinese treasures to return home," he told Ruian Daily.

One of Jin's most prized purchases is a jade cup from the Ming Dynasty, which he bought in 2010 at a German auction house. He fought arduously against a German collector, who also wanted the cup, but Jin eventually won the auction.

Curious case

In recent years, such grass-roots efforts to bring back lost relics to China have extended beyond individual attempts, occasionally uniting a clan or an entire village.

In 2016, Chinese villagers in Yangchun, East China's Fujian Province, filed an international lawsuit against a Dutch collector in order to retrieve a stolen sculpture that contains the actual body of their ancestor, Master Zhang, a Buddhist monk.

They allege that the statue was stolen from their village in 1995. One of the villagers later saw it on a televised international antique show being showed off by a collector from the Netherlands. Since then, the villagers have gone on an international pursuit to retrieve their stolen property.

After fruitlessly exhausting every other means at their disposal to persuade the collector to return the statue, in 2015 the villagers wrote a collective letter to the Dutch prime minister during his state visit to China.

The collector, Oscar van Overeem, finally agreed to negotiate, but listed three prerequisites: to keep the sculpture in a bigger temple; the Chinese side must help him with unrelated research, including appraising his private collection of Buddhist artifacts; and pay him compensation.

Refusing to submit to van Overeem's demands, Yangchun and Dongpu village committees empowered a group of lawyers to file an overseas lawsuit on their behalf.

On June 8, 2016, a court in the Netherlands formally accepted the case. In 2017, the villagers traveled abroad to attend the first hearing. Even though no decision has yet been made by the court, commentators say filing a lawsuit served as a symbolic meaning of the Chinese public's voluntarily fight to recover stolen artifacts.

Foreign manipulation

The Chinese government also places emphasis on publicity when seeking the return of lost or stolen cultural relics.

A commentator on Hebei Radio said the recovery of relics shows the growing prosperity of the nation and its people.

During the Spring Festival Gala in February of this year, a Ming Dynasty painting of the Silk Road was exhibited by the director of the Forbidden City Palace Museum to millions of viewers. The painting was purchased last year by billionaire Xu Rongmao of real estate developer Shanghai Shimao Group for $20 million from a private collector, then donated to the museum.

However, some experts warn that the international hunt to recover China's lost relics could in fact be helping foreign auction houses drive up the bid prices of their items.

"A foreign auction house that commercially hypes the origin of a bronze vessel may be trying to manipulate Chinese people's patriotism, which will drive up the auction price," Liu Zheng, a member of China Cultural Relics Academy, told the Global Times.

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage told the media that it does not encourage Chinese agencies or individuals to bid for relics being auctioned at foreign auction houses.

Huo Zhengxin, vice dean of the School of International Law of China University of Political Science and Law, told that the best way to retrieve lost relics is still through the government.

"China's Cultural Relics Law stipulates that such artifacts belong to the country. So the country and the government is the sole body for retrieving relics. Grass-roots efforts should only play a supporting role, to show the demand of the Chinese people."

"But," Huo added, "the real successful push of retrieving lost relics still needs to rely more on the government."

Newspaper headline: National treasure

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

blog comments powered by Disqus