US returns over 1,000-year-old stone carvings
Smuggled treasures recovered through joint efforts
Published: May 10, 2023 07:56 PM
Photo: Xinhua

Photo: Xinhua

Two more than 1,000-year-old cultural relics were returned to China after a ceremony at the Manhattan District ­Attorney's Office in New York on Tuesday. 

Chinese Consul General in New York Huang Ping attended the ceremony, where officials from both sides agreed that the return will "bring positive energy into China-US relations." 

The two countries will continue to proactively cooperate in the tracing, recovery and return of stolen cultural relics, according to a statement from China's Consulate General in New York on Wednesday.

"So excited to attend Chinese cultural property repatriation ceremony @ManhattanDA. The return of two 7th-century carvings symbolizes our cooperation in protecting cultural heritage. It will enhance friendship between our two peoples and bring positive energy into ­China-US relations," Huang posted on his personal Twitter account.

The two stone carvings were once part of stone funerary platforms that supported a coffin in a tomb. They date back to the Northern Dynasties (386-581) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and are collectively valued at nearly $3.5 million, owing to their high historical, scientific and artistic value. 

Wang Sikang, an archaeologist specializing in ancient Chinese art, told the Global Times that funerary platforms resembled stone beds, known as shi ta, and were often composed of a stone slab and surrounding stone screens that resembled the wooden folding screens, or pingfeng, ancient Chinese would often have in their bedrooms.

Wang noted that these ancient stone screens, such as the two returned relics, would often be engraved with intricate decorations such as figures and animals. Such decorations hold "archaeological and cultural" significance as they provide insight not only into the burial customs but also the beliefs and lives of people at the time.

"The ancient designs show what the people of the Northern to Tang dynasties wore and what they through of as 'beautiful.' The Tang was the most 'beautiful' dynasty in Chinese history, so the returned relic shed light on Tang Dynasty art," Wang said, adding that China has many relics that are still lost overseas. Returning these "historical pieces" to China can "help the world archaeology better understand ancient Chinese history." 

According to the official website of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, in the early 1990s thieves used saws to cut the two antiques from a tomb in China and smuggled the pieces out of the country. 

From 1998 until the office's seizure in 2023, the antiquities were on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from a private collector based in Manhattan. In early 2023, the office concluded a criminal investigation into relics purchased by the collector, resulting in the seizure of 89 antiquities from 10 different countries. The seized items were collectively valued at nearly $69 million.

Prior to the office's seizure, one of the two carvings had been in the museum's storage area for 25 years and was never displayed. This antiquity was also never cleaned and is caked with dirt, another tell-tale sign of its illicit origins.

"It is a shame that these two incredible antiquities were stolen and at least one remained largely hidden from the public view for nearly three decades. While their total value is more than $3 million, the incredible detail and beauty of these pieces can never be truly captured by a price tag," said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg, Jr. 

"Cultural property embodies human wisdom and creativity. The fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property is our sacred mission. Our joint efforts will set up a great example for inter-governmental actions and raise public awareness on protection of precious cultural heritage," Huang later posted on Twitter.

An official from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office said at the ceremony that this is the second time that the office has cooperated with China to return cultural relics, and the two countries will continue to cooperate in this area in the future.

Yu Jinlong, a Beijing-based cultural critic, told the Global Times that though China-US relations are experiencing some tension, cultural relics are the heritage of all humanity and the repatriation of cultural relics has greatly promoted cultural exchanges between the two countries.

"Cultural exchanges between China and US should conform to the needs of the era's development.We should adhere to the spirit of mutual respect and mutual appreciation between different cultures, providing great value for the construction of a global community with shared future," he said.

China's National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) has currently arranged for the return of the cultural relics handed over at the ceremony in New York. Since 2015, the US has returned a total of 404 cultural relics and artworks and one paleontological fossil to China over the course of five batches. The latest return is another successful example of the cooperation between China and the US in retrieving and returning cultural relics, the NCHA said in a statement on Wednesday.