Monday, 2 January 2012

Supplying the Collectors' Market: Tomb-Robbing in China

"China's extraordinary historical treasures are under threat from increasingly aggressive and sophisticated tomb raiders, who destroy precious archaeological evidence as they swipe irreplaceable relics", reports Tania Branigan in Beijing ('China's tomb raiders laying waste to thousands of years of history', Guardian Sunday 1 January 2012). Scholars in some regions say that almost 95% of ancient tombs have been raided to supply the collectors' market:
Experts say the problem became worse as China's economy opened up, with domestic and international collectors creating a huge market for thieves. [Professor Wei] Zheng [archaeologist, Peking University] said a phrase emerged in the 1980s: "If you want to be rich, dig up old tombs and become a millionaire overnight."
The provinces worst hit are those with a particularly rich archaeological heritage – Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan.

These tombs are not being dug out, as the dealers' propaganda would have it, by impoverished subsistence-digging peasant farmers who stumble across them but increasingly professionalised gangs specialising in tomb robbery and passing them material generated onto the antiquities market.
One researcher estimated that 100,000 people were involved in the trade nationally. Wei Yongshun, a senior investigator, told China Daily in 2011 that crime bosses often hired experienced teams of tomb thieves and sold the plunder on to middlemen as quickly as they could. Other officers told how thieves paid farmers to show them the tombs and help them hide from police. Local officials have insufficient resources to prevent the crimes and often do not see the thefts as a priority. Others turn a blind eye after being bribed by gangs.
"The thieves use dynamite and even bulldozers to break into the deepest chambers – and night vision goggles and oxygen canisters to search them. The artefacts they take are often sold on within days to international dealers". The Guardian notes the simple truth that collectors and dealers deny:
international collectors bear as much responsibility for the crimes as the actual thieves: the high prices they offer create the incentive for criminals. Wei said: "Stolen cultural artefacts are usually first smuggled out through Hong Kong and Macao and then taken to Taiwan, Canada, America or European countries to be traded." The sheer size as well as value of the relics demonstrates the audacity of the raiders – last year, the Chinese authorities recovered a 27-tonne sarcophagus that had been stolen from Xi'an and shipped to the US. It took four years of searching before China identified the collector who had bought the piece – from the tomb of Tang dynasty concubine Wu Huifei – for an estimated $1m (£650,000), and secured its return.
The plague of robberies caused by the failure of the international community to regulate this no-quuestions-asked trade is costing countries like China dearly:
Luo Xizhe of the Shaanxi provincial cultural relics bureau told China Daily: "If we don't take immediate and effective steps to protect these artefacts, there will be none of these things left to protect in 10 years." He said provincial and national authorities planned to spend more than 100m yuan (£10m) on surveillance equipment for tombs in Shaanxi over the next five years. But video surveillance and infrared imaging devices for night-time monitoring cost 5m yuan for even a small grave, he added. Spending on protecting cultural relics as a whole soared from 765m yuan in 2006 to 9.7bn in 2011.
A crackdown by authorities was helping to contain the problem to an extent.
According to the ministry of public security, police investigated 451 tomb-raiding cases in 2010 and another 387 involving the theft of relics. In the first six months of that year, they smashed 71 gangs, detained 787 suspects and recovered 2,366 artefacts. Those caught face fines and jail terms of three to 10 years, or life in the most serious cases.
Obviously though we need to do something about the people who are buying this stuff in the absence of any documentation showing it has been legitimately obtained and legally exported. It is precisely such measures that groups of collectors (like America's Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild) are actively opposing. SHAME ON THEM.

Update: I thought I'd blogged this before, I was right, it's very similar to this article which I blogged at the beginning of September 2010.
Vignette: Who'd buy dodgy antiquities from those who deal with Chinese criminal gangs?


Avatar said...

Having read about this one case before, I still wonder who the US collector is, who thought he could so easily buy the 27t sarcophagus. Which area in the US is s/he from? What were the consequences for this collector? Has s/he been sentenced? Obviously, it is public shame that is one of the effective ways to help preventing further looting. Some research is still needed.

Paul Barford said...

Indeed, one would like to know more about this tory. Why hide the collector's name? Why not tell us who he bought it from? Why is the truth being hidden from the American people?

What is more to the point, if one can smuggle 27 tonnes of looted antiquity through US borders, what else gets through so easily?

Indeed, what allowed these people to think they COULD get the thing through, have they done this before?

Obviously doing a proper investigation of antiquity smuggling will inevitably reveal some shocking loopholes in America's border "defences".

So how many Dirty Bombs could 27 tonnes of certain substances make?

Damien Huffer said...

I blogged about a similar article in September last year. I agree with Avatars point about public shaming being a powerful tool to prevent looting/encourage repatriation. Seemed to have worked in Iraq... Building culturally/linguistically relevant nation-wide campaigns around this concept in source countries seems to me a worthwhile endeavor...

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