Govt stopping sale at Japan auction raises hopes about looted artifacts

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/8 19:38:39

A bronze rat head, made for the zodiac fountain of Emperor Qianlong's Summer Palace, was sold for 14 million euros ($15 million) at an auction held by Christies auction house in 2009 in Paris, France. Photo: CFP

A bronze rat head, made for the zodiac fountain of Emperor Qianlong's Summer Palace, was sold for 14 million euros ($15 million) at an auction held by Christies auction house in 2009 in Paris, France. Photo: CFP


An auction house in Japan recently cancelled its plans to sell several historical items at the request of China's cultural heritage authorities, following new regulations adopted on October 20 that ban domestic auctions of cultural relics that were looted illegally in the past.

Experts say this is an encouraging start for the retrieval of Chinese relics wrongly taken overseas, and called for a dedicated committee to work on this issue.

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) successfully prevented Japan's Yokohama International Auction from selling several relics which were taken overseas in the early 20th Century at the 2016 autumn action in Tokyo in October, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

"We consistently oppose and denounce sales of illegally looted cultural relics. We hope that organizations and individuals honor the spirit of international conventions, respect the feelings of the people from the relics' original countries, while avoiding the sale and commercial exploration of such relics," the SACH said in a statement.

"It was an answer to the call of the national policy," a representative of Yokohama Auction in China, surnamed Li, told the Global Times.

An unconfirmed letter widely circulated on the Internet, purportedly sent by the SACH to the Yokohama-based auction house, said that the relics were "illegally obtained by the Japanese Buddhist and explorer named Otani Kozui and his fellows," including a few pieces of a mural and handwritten Buddhist manuscripts that date back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Change in approach

"This is the first time that the cultural heritage department has brought up such a statement, which also signaled that the SACH has changed its negative attitude toward this issue, even though it has always been a hot topic," Liu Yang, a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in cultural relics who has been working to retrieve relics overseas, told the Global Times.

Liu said that the change actually started in 2015, when the SACH declared that the "Zhanggong Patriarch," a 1,000-year-old mummified Buddha currently owned by a Dutch art collector Oscar van Overeem which was exhibited in Budapest, Hungary, was stolen from Yangchun village in Southwest China's Fujian Province 20 years ago. The SACH then started the retrieval process and connected with the Dutch Embassy in China.

It was reported that van Overeem would consider returning the Buddha, "if it is proven to have belonged to a Buddhist community that still exists."

However, van Overeem later changed his mind and asked for $20-30 million for the statue from the Chinese government as compensation, Xinhua and Britain's Daily Mail reported.

"China currently not only has the power to retrieve the relics, but also has the consciousness of doing this," Ni Fangliu, a Nanjing-based archeology expert, told the Global Times on Monday.

"The Japanese auction house understood that if they continued the auction, they would face the risk that a public outcry would upgrade the issue into a diplomatic event," Liu said.

More than 10 million looted Chinese cultural relics are yet to be returned, Xinhua reported in 2015.

Legal battles

Liu noted that diplomatic measures are the first choice when it comes to retrieving relics overseas, but it can be very difficult as many relics are in museums, which will not easily give up their exhibitions.

"Therefore, legal methods might be the most effective way, which means that local authorities and the managing departments of the original countries can use international law to retrieve relics," Liu said.

 "The retrieving of the relics is an international issue. Not only for China, other countries, such as Egypt and Greece, who currently have a huge amount of relics overseas, have been calling for the return of relics," Liu said

Meanwhile, in the importing countries, many people support the return of the relics out of humanitarian concerns and some agreements have been made, Liu said.

 "A governmental committee specializing on retrieving relics overseas should be founded to support such activities," Ni note, adding that the biggest problem would be how to clarify the history of the stolen and sold relics that are now owned by foreign individuals or organizations, especially discovering how they ended up abroad.

 


Newspaper headline: Relics return


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