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China’s Antique Smuggling on Rise : Government Starts Campaign Against Increased Theft

Times Staff Writer

For the past two years, antiques have been smuggled out of China in unprecedented numbers, flooding the markets of Hong Kong and Macao and driving down the prices for Chinese art.

Authorities in China have launched an intensive campaign to stop the smuggling, but the official Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily recently confessed that the smuggling continues, and that it “involves some official units as well as individuals.” Customs officials claim to have uncovered 2,000 smuggling cases in the first half of this year.

It turns out that some of these antiques are being snapped up by an unusual buyer: Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, the institution that already houses the art treasures brought along when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist troops fled the Chinese mainland in 1948-49.

‘A Good Time to Buy’

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“If they (people in China) smuggle, it’s their business. We would like to have these objects,” Julie Chou Ling, the curator of the museum’s exhibition department, said in an interview.

“Our museum collection is rich, but still there have been some gaps,” she said. “This is a good time to buy. The price is down. Later, there may not be this chance. The objects coming out now are in very good condition. They are very beautiful.”

The museum curator would not say how much the museum has spent in buying the antiques from the mainland, but she acknowledged that some of the money for the purchases has come directly from the government.

Taiwan’s Nationalist regime still maintains that it is the legitimate government for all of China, and in its view, the famed National Palace Museum in Taipei represents one symbol of this claim of legitimacy. The museum holds many of the priceless ancient jades, bronzes, porcelains, enamelware and paintings that were collected by Chinese emperors and were originally held in the Forbidden City in Peking.

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In 1925, the Nationalists forced the last representative of the Qing Dynasty, which was overthrown 14 years before, to leave the Imperial City and took control of the art. In 1931, after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Nationalists crated up the objects and moved them first to Shanghai, Nanjing and Chongqing and, finally, to Taiwan.

According to Chou, the new wave of smuggled objects began flooding out of China and finding their way to art dealers in Macao, the tiny Portuguese enclave 40 miles west of Hong Kong. The Taiwan Museum determined that they were not fakes, she said, and so it has been buying them--not on its own, but indirectly, through the intermediary of private antiques dealers on Taiwan.

‘Very Patriotic’

“They (Taiwan dealers) have their ways of getting these objects. They don’t tell us how,” Chou said. “They are happy to help us, they are very patriotic.”

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(Private Taiwan art dealers have other reasons for wanting to stay on good terms with the National Palace Museum. In order for a private dealer to import Chinese art objects onto the island, for example, he or she must first have the Palace Museum certify the authenticity of the works.)

Within the past two years, the museum has acquired some pottery from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220), some Qing Dynasty furniture, and some musical instruments which are more than 2,000 years old.

In the case of the ancient musical instruments, Chou acknowledged that museum officials took the initiative and expressed an interest to the private dealers about acquiring such objects. The dealers then found them and sold them to the museum.

In China itself, authorities say they believe that much of the smuggled art originates with grave robbers. In the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Gansu--some of China’s most impoverished areas--ancient burial grounds are being combed and tombs are being sacked.

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Sometimes, the digging is carried out by ordinary peasants. But there is also considerable evidence of involvement by officials and organized groups inside China. Peng Qingyun, a spokesman for the Relics Bureau of China’s Ministry of Culture, said earlier this year that China will show no mercy to those who smuggle antiques.

Sentenced to Jail

Last month, five Chinese government employees were given jail sentences and a Hong Kong businessman was fined more than $125,000 for smuggling more than 21,000 cultural relics worth $100,000 out of China.

The jailed government employees included a manager and deputy head of the Hunan provincial branch of the China National Arts Export and Import Corp. They were said to have signed 12 contracts with the Hong Kong merchant, whose name was not disclosed, in order to supply him with porcelain and woodcraft antiques.

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A 1982 Chinese law forbids the export of any relics dating from before 1795 without official state approval. The Hunan group falsified customs forms in order to get the antiques out of China.

There are other stories of Chinese officials stuffing antiques in suitcases and carrying them out for sale in Hong Kong. But the most common route is apparently to smuggle out goods in small fishing boats to Macao.

Some large shipping vessels have also become involved in the trade. Last month, the captain and two crew members from a mainland Chinese ship were arrested by Hong Kong customs officials, who seized 460 antiques valued at about $200,000 on board the ship.

Michael Lee, divisional commander of the Hong Kong Customs Investigation Bureau, said it was his agency’s largest and most valuable seizure of Chinese antiques. He said the boat was carrying pottery figures, porcelain and Neolithic pots.

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That single seizure certainly has not stopped the flood of relics from the mainland. Late last month, the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, reported that Hong Kong antique shops have recently been jammed with unprecedented quantities of well-preserved Neolithic pots from China’s Gansu province--some of them up to 5,000 years old.

‘They Need the Money’

At Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, Chou said she has never seen so much art coming out of the mainland. “It’s the first time, and it really surprises us,” she said. “There’s only one thing that can explain it. They’re poor (in China), and they need the money.”

Chou said she had no qualms about buying the art and thereby encouraging the smuggling of relics out of China. If the objects had been in museums on the mainland during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, she said, they would have been destroyed.

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Would Taiwan’s museum buy one of the famed life-size terra-cotta warriors unearthed in China’s ancient capital of Xian in the early 1970s?

“Sure,” Chou said with a smile. “Why not?”


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