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Amateur Sleuths Pursue China's Stolen Relics

Pitted against tomb robbers and corrupt officials, they also work to recover treasures in the hands of foreign collectors and museums.

August 03, 2003|Elaine Kurtenbach | Associated Press Writer

BEIJING — He Shuzhong prowls the countryside searching for tomb robbers. He had to hide from one gang in an icy river, and mortgaged his own apartment to pay for the hunt -- all to help protect the treasures of China's past.

He leads a band of amateur sleuths who are part of a growing movement to protect Chinese cultural sites and retrieve treasures that have been taken abroad.

Groups ranging from volunteer associations to major companies and government foundations are joining in, using a wide-ranging arsenal of tools -- diplomatic lobbying, the Internet, undercover investigations and China's growing economic power.

They are fighting a Chinese trade in stolen relics, from Buddha heads to ancient chariots, that is thriving at all levels.

Museums are robbed by their own curators. Farmers loot tombs found in their fields. With millions of relics to preserve in museums, temples and still undiscovered in the countryside, policing such thefts is nearly impossible. Stolen jades, porcelains, sculptures, bronzes and paintings wind up in museums and private collections abroad.

In June, the government said a museum security official in the northern city of Chengde was accused of stealing more than 150 relics such as vases and Buddhist devotional items, some of them considered national treasures. The official Xinhua News Agency said it was China's biggest antiquities theft since communist rule began in 1949.

Last year, the government said villagers in western China's Sichuan province looted jades, bronzes and other treasures from about 50 tombs up to 2,000 years old.

The Internet has been a boon to activists, helping them to gather information and link up with others trying to recover treasures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Greece.

He Shuzhong and his friends were filming the looting of 8,500-year-old tombs in the northern region of Inner Mongolia in October 2001 when the robbers spotted them. That set off a chase across the grasslands in which He's activists hid in a river.

"There are dangers, plenty of them, but you can't just put safety first and lock yourself up like a scholar in his study," He said.

He -- whose name is pronounced "Huh" -- traces his passion to the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a frenzied campaign to destroy remnants of the old China during which temples were trashed, relics seized from homes, ancient coins melted down for metal and furniture burned as firewood. Officials sold off huge hauls of relics to overseas art dealers.

He spent his childhood alone in an old house while his parents were busy with political "struggle sessions."

"There was so much history locked up inside that house," he said. And he knew it would have been lost forever had the house been destroyed.

To encourage public support for recovering the lost treasures, the government held an exhibition in Beijing in March of bronze vessels dating back almost 3,000 years that were unearthed by farmers in Shaanxi, a western province that is rich in archeological sites. State media declared them heroes for reporting the find.

The thefts in Chengde highlight the complexity of stopping the hemorrhaging.

State media say the security official was caught only after pieces were spotted in a sale by the Christie's auction house in Hong Kong last October. As many as 20 of the items were reported to be from the Palace Museum in Beijing, which said it lent out many items in the 1960s and '70s that were never returned.

The thefts went undetected for so long because five successive directors of the relics agency in Chengde failed to take inventory of their collection, according to Xinhua.

Christie's in Hong Kong said it didn't know the treasures were stolen and is cooperating with police. It isn't clear what will happen to the objects if police conclude they were stolen.

Many items abroad were acquired legally decades or centuries ago -- gifts from the imperial court or barter from the ancient Silk Road. Others were looted in war or taken by explorers.

A private group, China's Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, estimates there are more than 1 million relics outside the country, scattered in 200 museums in 47 countries. Ten times as many could be in private collections, says Zhang Yongnian, the group's executive director.

Zhang's group, which is still doing research to determine what they want to have returned, hopes to use official channels to lobby governments and museums.

If that doesn't work, he says, China will buy back the relics.

"In the past, our country was very poor," Zhang said. "Now, we have the right conditions. The country is stronger and it has economic means."

In 2000, three 18th century bronze animal heads that had been looted from a Beijing palace were bought back at a Hong Kong auction by Poly Group, a state-owned conglomerate that now displays them in its Beijing headquarters. The company also gives money and office space to the Lost Relics Recovery Program.

Still, many expect the trade to continue as long as it offers huge profits, and many of those who live surrounded by rich relic sites are impoverished farmers.

He, the activist, notes that sophisticated art catalogs can be found in remote villages -- evidence of the trade's enduring allure.

"For most Chinese," He said, "the idea of protecting cultural relics seems very abstract."

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