Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Looters and collectors in China

The market for looted antiquities in China is booming, with rampant black market trading and relic smuggling, according to Cai Guoxiu, deputy director of Suizhou Bureau of Public Security. Tombs are often raisded by locals, but they are then sold on by smugglers from outside teh region. The latter "can  quickly move the antiquities to the black market, making it difficult for the police to trace". Illegal  excavations are very common in Suizhou (northeast Hunei province) where there have even been attacks on archeologists. Security staff have to conduct round-the-clock patrols to avoid attacks and ensure the safety of some of the excavation sites. However it is clear that the cultural department lacks the proper budget and manpower to set up enough patrol teams to protect every threatened findspot of 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 on the black market. There have been some successes in the fight against this problem:
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. [...] Police arrested three leaders and 20 accomplices of the smuggling ring, which allegedly involved tomb raiding, relic thefts and smuggling.[...] Police hunted down the ring members in 20 prefectural-level areas in nine provinces. [...] 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.
At least one of the seized objects, a  bronze tripod pot, was  stolen from the Yejiashan cemetery in Suizhou, which was counted as among China's Top 10 Archeological Finds last year. According to
Huang Fengchuan, researcher of Hubei Provincial Archeological Institute: 
"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 [had been] professionally excavated rather than being [robbed]. 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 police 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. 
The archaeologist Huang suggested that Chinese law enforcement departments should step up their efforts to combat tomb robbery to stem the flow of relics to the black market. Obviously  law enforcement in other countries has a part to play in this too, by keeping an eye open for illicitly obtained and smuggled artefacts entering from Chinese sources.  Responsible foreign dealers and collectors of course can also make a contribution to curbing the looting by taking active steps to avoid buying fresh stuff coming from this Chinese black market [I do not count in that number those collectors and dealers associated with the ACCG, who on the grounds that such notions are 'discriminatory' to pirates are continuing to fight for the "right" to be able to buy whatever they can get their hands on, including illegally exported Chinese artefacts falling outside the definitions of licit provided by the CCPIA].

 Xinhua, 'Chinese police bust major relic smuggling ring', Global Times News, 13th November 2012.

Vignette, the location of Suizhou in Hubei province [Henan province is the one to the NNE].

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