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Posts Tagged ‘looting’

Something many of you who have dabbled in Antiquities Market research already know is the so-called “driving force of collectors;” well, in China, as many sinologists already know, a new class of people have recently been exercising their social and economic power. This new class, called China’s New Bourgeoise, is made up primarily of wealthy, professional urbanites in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and their effect on China’s antiquities market has been quite influential.

I recently Twittered a short article from The Museum Security Network regarding the drive of China’s domestic collectors to acquire Chinese antiquities. The article draws particular attention to operation of the Chinese antiquities market in which archaeological sites get looted by locals using sophisticated archaeological techniques, and sell their goods to middlemen who bring them to Hong Kong, where a legal loophole in which Hong Kong is not yet bound by PRC law (for the next 40 or so years) is exploited and the antiquities are sold to international as well a domestic buyers.

What I really took away from this article, however, is not so much how looted antiquities flow through China’s markets, but rather, the ever-growing problem of this new Chinese bourgeois class, which has developed a taste for collecting art that is just as voracious, if not more so, than that of developed Western countries. What is unique in this situation is that China has effectively become both a “source nation” as well as a “market nation.” This creates problems of international legislation as many defenders of the antiquities market (museum directors and prominent collectors, etc…) can argue that international sanctions against the buying and selling of unprovenanced antiquities are rendered futile if domestic buyers are not also sanctioned in the same way.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

[EDIT:] To draw more attention to this, consider the comment Dr. Kwame Opoku posted on my recent article on SAFECORNER. What do you think should be done about reconciling the differences between international and domestic cultural heritage protection plans and legal statutes?

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Reactions and comments on two articles that have recently come out, one in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, and the other just today in the New York Times have garnerd a great deal of public opinion.

Trolling the comments pages is fascinating because it allows us to guage how the general public feels about these issues, and whether or not they are aware of any potential truths and falsehoods behind the rather succinct reports.

If you haven’t yet read the articles, I have linked to them above.

And for those of you who have read the articles, but don’t have the time or energy to troll through pages and pages of what other people write, I have selected a few choice excerpts to display here.

From The Telegraph article:

My prediction is that in 50 years time, Britain will not be in a position to say no to the return of the artifacts. The balance of power is inexorably shifting from West to East and all the arguments based on right will be eventually settled by might, as they have been since the beginning of history. – H. Yates

It’s about time that these artifacts be returned to their countries of origin. The British and French have no right to them. Besides, it would do French and British culture some good, the returned artifacts will make room for native French and British artifacts. China should join with Italy, Greece, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, and any other country who has artifacts looted by these two imperial powers and demand their cultural heritage back. And united front in this matter would be the best strategy. – Old School

please respect the research team.Their mission is to document not to ask for return.So just focus on it.
It is a great and difficult task to show the whole pictures of that invasion history, which shall not be forgotten . – Nikita

I think the artifacts should stay where they are. The British museum has taken better care of them than the chinese would have. If the chinese government is taking an interest in it’s history, it should be thanking the museums and private collectors who have been preserving chinese artifacts. If these artifacts had been left in china, they most likely would have been destroyed in the cultural revolution. The fact that they are in museums in britain is the only reason that they still exist today. – Dave

Of course EVERYTHING looted should be returned. Museums would be emptied until copies could be made. But, the originals should be returned. It is an arrogant response to state “we took good care of them” Since they belong to other countries, we stole them. It’s that simple. Even if they were destroyed and lost by staying in the country of origin, it is the business of that country. Not ours. When I see people use any excuse to drag Tibet or Taiwan into this argument I have the same response. Not your business. Not mine. It is the business of China. I also wonder how we would feel if China or Iraq or any other country were to start poking noses into UK affairs or policies. Send it all back to the country of origin, with apologies for being thieving bastards. Say we are more civilized now, our ancestors were not. – Dave T.

From The New York Times article:

One must wonder how many of these art treasures would have survived Mao’s Red Guard while they mindlessly destroyed all evidence of the “old ways”….China has a long memory when they wish to bring to the attention of the western countries that they were exploited…China has a convenient memory when it suits them. – Hooter

Beijing’s determination to reclaim its cultural heritage would bear a good deal more credibility if they’d stop ransaking the culture of their own Tibetan and Uighur minorities. – Stu Freeman

…the Chinese want to portray themselves as victims of colonial aggression – Andy

Actually, I, as a citizen of the socalled People’s Republic of China,completely agree that those antiquities are better to be preserved in the great USA museums.With good,scientific,well-intended caring and highly-efficient study,they can be in a greater situation of protection and of greater use and value.
I fundamentally disagree with the visit of the delegation…I want to ask that who payed for the fees of the “reclaiming”?…why dot’t you(the communists of CPC) put the money to render better protection of the remnants of relics at home? ……Are the untold number of antiquities and relice ruined in the notorious Cultural Revolution more vulueable and treasurous than those plundered from Yuanmingyuan? And……who should be responsible for ruining and destroying so many great antiquities in the damned Cultural Revolution? Maybe we should hold a debate at home instead of going abroad in vain! – Isaac

This bemused and farcical account does a great disservice to readers who rely on the New York Times for objective and insightful journalism.
The Summer Palace was not just a single palace, but rather, an 860-acre estate which served as one of the world’s foremost repositories of art and architecture. In terms of its cultural and administrative importance, the Summer Palace stood in contrast to the “Winter Palace,” which is a famous structure shown in many postcards today depicting Beijing tourist sites.
The Summer Palace was plundered, five hundred of its unarmed custodians were massacred or driven out, and its buildings were burned to the ground during the Second Opium War by French and English troops on the orders of the eighth Earl of Elgin (ironically, the son of the seventh Lord Elgin infamous for relieving the Parthenon of its marble friezes).
Lord Elgin’s orders were issued when the Chinese Imperium refused to allow the sale of narcotics in their land. To provide an imperfect fictional modern analogy, imagine if a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (and not the U.S.) were the world’s foremost superpower, and then imagine if Afghan forces marched a “world coalition” into Vatican City, stole or destroyed all of the art and relics there, murdered the clergy, and then dropped an atomic bomb on the city because the Holy See refused to allow Taliban drug cartels to traffic heroin in the streets of Vatican City. Just as we would be appalled and outraged by such an occurrence for generations to come, the citizens of China understandably remain appalled and outraged by the destruction of the Summer Palace.

The tone of the article conveys little sympathy with the Chinese perspective of things. It dismissively characterizes the delegation’s work as “a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company,” recounts the delegation’s activities in a most diminutive way (e.g., “The Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied, smiled for a group photo, and drove away.”), and gives great weight to reports of ulterior motives in the delegation’s mission…….As the NYT’s own columnist Thomas Friedman admonishes, we live in a globalized economy where an accurate understanding of other cultural perspectives is imperative to professional success and successful economic engagement. By portraying China in such a buffoonish way on a matter of great importance, and by downplaying the very human yearning of the Chinese people for redress of a serious crime committed against their nation and their forefathers, this article performs a great disservice upon its readers and falls far short of the high standards of journalism which the paper professes. – Dexter H.

They certainly have played up the repatriation of relics in recent months, and there is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that this tour was as motivated by politics as any genuine hope of reclaiming stolen history. I also realize that the Summer Palace museum is in need of a modern overhaul, and that chances are most of the looted items are in private collections today (though, I’d bet that they are far more successful in the UK and France than the US, being that those countries were the actual perpetrators of the looting). However, despite these problems, I think this is overall a good quest. – Shanghai Expat

Why not cooperte with the chinese government and jointly devise a plan to uncover and resolve any issue with the “looted” chinese treasuries if there is one. There is a lot of history and cultural significance in these objects. And China probably is the best to find out the historical significance and value in the chinese and the world history. – Jim

..and so on.

Take a gander at the articles if you are interested in this ongoing saga. Or better yet, check out an upcoming post on the SAFE blog, SAFECORNER, written by yours truly that will be coming out in the next few days.

If these article piqued your fancy, you might also be interested in reading about the views and positions of various Chinese Nationals about China purchasing looted Qing Dynasty antiquities, much like the ones they are currently surveying and examining in the West.

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So there has been information floating around recently that the Chinese are taking their recent preoccupation with reacquiring previously looted antiquities (called the  Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program) to a whole new playing field, and have gained access to the British Museum, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum in order to inspect their collections for items that can be proved to have been illegally removed.

This is seriously interesting, folks. From all angles. I’m currently on the hunt for more information about this subject, but as a teaser, here’s an article about it from the Telegraph. Be sure the peruse the comments as well, fascinating the opinions an endeavor like this generates…

Will keep you posted.

Also, as a heads up, book reviews are soon to be added! Yay!

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Check out THIS article that was posted in the New York Times this morning about grassroots organizations against looting in Peru, Mali, and Iraq.

It’s a little off topic from the usual fare on this blog, but I think its worthwhile to examine what people in other countries are doing about archaeological site looting.

Plus, the article is written by Roger Atwood, whose book, Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, is one of the best contributions to the raising of awareness about the topic in the last few years.

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For anyone who can read Chinese (simplified), or who wants to practice their Chinese, HERE is an interesting article from www.popyard.org, a popular Chinese news website that discusses whether or not the Tomb of Qinshihuang should be excavated.

The famous mausoleum of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. – 206 B.C.), has reentered the news recently because of the 3rd excavation on the terracotta warriors pits that commenced earlier this month.

The mausoleum of the famed emperor himself has not yet been excavated, however, due to several competing arguments for and against it. First off, as the popyard opinion piece fervently opens with, “excavating the tomb of an ancient emperor for the sake of boosting curiosity and tourism is (should be) absolutely forbidden;” many Chinese feel that excavating this tomb would be akin to sacrilege, and that the tombs of the ancients, especially an ancient as well-known, respected, and somewhat feared as Qinshihuang should be left in peace and admired from afar. Second, even those who advocate for excavating the tomb are hesitant because they fear the corrosive effects of exposing whatever treasures the tomb may have to offer to the air, which has already been demonstrated on the paint once covering the terracotta warriors.

In addition, there are many myths and stories surrounding what may be contained inside that enormous mound that makes up the tomb, including poisoned arrows, rivers of mercury, and a plethora of guardian spirits. All of these stem from the well-known idea that Qinshihuang, during his lifetime, was obsessed with immortality, and took endless pains to ensure that his body and spirit would be preserved long after his death. If the grandiosity of the terracotta warrior pits so far found are any indication of how seriously Qinshihuang might have been about wanting his mortal remains to be protected, the sheer size of his mausoleum has been an effective deterrant for even the most curious Chinese scholar.

On a more practical level, the amount of tourism that the site has garnered in the last several decades has required the Chinese to ensure its protection. As a result this tomb is one of rare exceptions in China that has NOT been looted to within an inch of its life.

The question now is, what benefit would excavating the tomb bring not only to China, but also to the international community? Is the mausoleum better off untouched? Given all of the arguments against excavating it, dangers contained within, issues of conservation and preservation, and the dangers from without (looting), it is hard to imagine that any information about Qinshihuang and his time period that the tomb could tell us would be worth losing such a treasure. Even hard-nosed archaeologists and people who are pro-information gathering, sometimes have a difficult time speaking up against the tide that upholds the importance of keeping THIS tomb intact.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

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