Looting Issues in China

In China, looting is taken by many as another way of supporting their families. Many farmers, construction workers, and criminal gangs loot because their living expenses are very high and they need to make their money quickly. One ancient farmer said, “To be rich dig up an ancient tomb; to make a fortune open a coffin”. With this outlook on looting, it isn’t difficult to imagine that nearly 80 percent of Chinese art sold on the international market was looted somehow. The way that many of these looters get away with this is going to Hong Kong give the pieces of work a fake history and documentation. Most of the time the items are taken from ancient Chinese tombs, which are unguarded and easy to loot. However, sometimes the art is stolen from museums, temples, and even government warehouses.

There are several different operations that lead the looting, and they usually work at night. This job is extremely dangerous for the men working in the tombs tunneling because it is common for the tunnels to collapse, or for the “looters to be overcome by toxic fumes in the tomb”. To combat the looters the auction houses are requires to reapply yearly for their licenses, motion sensors and satellite devises have been installed in several tombs, and they now have guards looking after the best-known sites.

For the government, however, their most pressing problems are the gangs that set out to loot areas. Usually they have a specialty and the technology they use is more advanced than those of farmers, for example. Therefore, it is harder to detect that a gang is stealing certain artifacts until they have stolen several. To stay undetected many gang members will only have the artifacts in their hands for a short time, and use online technology to sell what they have stolen in order to sell them quickly and without getting noticed.

One of the most recent publicized cases of looting was in 2009 when China became furious when France was holding an auction to sell two ancient bronzes from the Qing dynasty. These pieces were stolen from Beijing’s Summer Palace 150 years ago. Owned by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, Berge decided to sell them after Saint Laurent’s death in 2008. The auction went ahead even after Beijing’s angry protests and from China’s Foreign Ministry who stressed that they want their “treasures back”. A Chinese collector did place a bid of 15.7 million euros, but then refused to pay, which lead the bronzes to continue to sit in a safe.

No one sees an end to looting in sight, but many precautions are being given so there is definitely hope for the future. From recent cases, it has been brought to other peoples’ attention of the issues, so this can help in preventing the selling of these stolen artifacts. If it continues in the direction it is going, looting will hopefully stop soon, or at least in a wide-spread way.






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2 Responses to Looting Issues in China

  1. taanesta says:

    This is a very serious problem but ironic in a way. Auction prices for ancient Chinese art by Chinese nationals have reached unprecedented levels. Just as the new class of upper class Chinese try to restore the artistic heritage of their nation, looting persists or has even become more common. An active stake in preserving Chinese art must be taken not only by the rich, but the government and people as well if it is to be preserved. The cycle of buying stolen good (which colonial power started, and nationals are only starting to buy back) will persist unless this issue is dealt with on the base.

  2. csphang says:

    I think the universality of looting is pretty interesting. Whether it’s happening in archaeological sites in Egypt like other bloggers touched upon, or in Iraq, Afghanistan, and here in this blog China, looting seems both ubiquitous and central in art. All across the world, in every region, every race and ethnicity, it occurs. Perhaps to fully understand art today, we have to understand this longstanding, ancient practice as well.

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