Police in central China's Hubei Province have bust a relic smuggling ring, recovering 198 ancient artifacts from the black market.
Police said the treasures were stolen and smuggled by gang members from Hubei to traders and collectors across the country.
Among them, eight artifacts are under China's class-one relic protection. The two most precious items are bronzewares, respectively dating back to Spring and Autumn Period (722-476 BC) and Western Han Dynasty of more than 2,000 years ago.
Police arrested three leaders and 20 accomplices of the smuggling ring, which allegedly involved tomb raiding, relic thefts and smuggling.
Cai Guoxiu, deputy director of Suizhou Bureau of Public Security, said the case illustrated how rampant relic smuggling and trading is in the black market. Police hunted down the ring members in 20 prefectural-level areas in nine provinces.
Huang Fengchuan, researcher of Hubei Provincial Archeological Institute said the relics retrieved by police are enough to hold an exhibition.
He said one artifact, a bronze tripod pot, was 200 to 300 years older than the famous bronze chime bells unearthed from a tomb of Zhenghouyi (Marquis Yi of Zeng State) in Suizhou, Hubei.
The bronze pot was stolen from Yejiashan Graveyard, Suizhou, which was inscribed among China's Top 10 Archeological Findings last year. A cluster of ancient tombs were discovered in the graveyard.
"The bronzeware may have given clues to the study of the period between the ruling of the Marquis Jian and Marquis Yi during the Spring and Autumn Period, if the tomb was professionally excavated rather than being stolen. The theft destroyed any chance for archaeologists to document the history of the site," he said.
The antique changed hands on six occasions by the suspects, with the highest price being one million yuan ($160,000) before it was seized by police in Haining City, Hubei, in October, said the polic officer Cai.
"Relic smugglers acquired the relics from tomb raiders and whisked them to traders in the black market, where they could be smuggled abroad for higher prices," Cai said.
He said usually raiders are locals who are familiar in finding tombs with smugglers from outside the city. They can quickly move the antiques to the black market, making it difficult for the police to trace.
Archeologist Huang said illegal excavation is rampant in Suizhou.
"Suizhou possesses a rich cultural heritage. While archeologists excavate inside the fence, ghouls exhume outside. They even ignored police warnings," he said.
His colleague Liu Cuiping said it is dangerous to be an archeologists in Suizhou, because sometimes the job can be life-threatening.
"I have bought assault insurance after two of my colleagues were attacked by tomb raiders in 2010," she said adding security staff had to reinforce round-the-clock patrols to avoid attacks and ensure the excavation.
Liu said the cultural department lacked budget and manpower to set up enough patrol teams to protect every field of cultural relics.
Police handling the relic smuggling case said most of the antiques were found in the residence of a relic collector surnamed Zhang in Henan Province.
Police found that Zhang has relic informants at many archeological sites and in the relic black market. He also has his storage, transportation and sales teams engaging in relic smuggling.
Huang suggested law enforcement departments to step up combat against tomb theft to stem the flow of relics to the black market.
He said there is a folk saying in Suizhou "Go robbing an ancient grave if you want to become rich overnight." The saying shows the wild enthusiasm of robbing and scalping relics in rural regions like Suizhou, which boasts lots of underground cultural relics.
Meanwhile, in big cities, wealthy people and collectors are interested in buying antiques for their potential of value appreciation, which has driven up the demand for goods in the black market, he said.