US Returns Two Stolen Relics Worth $3.5 Million to China

US Returns Two Stolen Relics Worth $3.5 Million to China

The United States has returned two stolen relics with a collective value of over $3.5 million to China, the latest batch of looted cultural artifacts to be sent back to China from the U.S..

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York announced Tuesday that the two 7th-century stone carvings from a funerary platform were smuggled to the U.S. in the 1990s. Weighing over 1,000 pounds each, the relics date back to the Northern and Tang dynasties and depict Zoroastrian religious themes.   

China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration said Wednesday that it has arranged for the return of the relics. 

At a handover ceremony in New York, Huang Ping, Chinese Consul General in New York, said that the return of the relics reflects the close cooperation between China and the U.S. in cultural heritage protection. 

According to the district attorney’s office, thieves used saws to cut the antiquities from a tomb in China in the 1990s then smuggled them out of the country. They were then loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than two decades by private collector Shelby White, with one of the two never exhibited, “never cleaned and … caked with dirt.”

The relics were found following a criminal investigation by the district attorney’s office into antiquities purchased by White, resulting in the seizure of 89 antiquities from 10 different countries.

According to Wang Chao, deputy director of the new media department at China Cultural Relics News, grave-robbing flourished in the late 20th century, especially in the countryside where government supervision is weaker. Domestic looters, both professional and amateur, have targeted graves especially, due to the expensive items often buried with the dead.

It’s been estimated that around 1.6 million cultural relics from China are scattered in 47 countries, with millions more in private collections. 

China adopted its Protection of Cultural Relics Law in 1982, banning the private buying and selling of cultural relics. The law has been amended six times in the following years. Last year, the authorities issued a new guideline on handling cultural relic crimes. 

According to state media Xinhua News Agency, from August 2020 to September 2022, a total of 8,420 suspects involved in 3,950 criminal cases of stolen cultural relics were arrested, with 82,800 artifacts recovered, of which almost 6,500 are national treasures. 

Since 2015, the U.S. has returned 404 cultural relics and artworks to China on five occasions.

Editor: Vincent Chow. 

(Header image: One of the return of two 7th-century carvings. From the website of NCHA)

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