June 15, 2005

China continues campaign to buy back looted artefacts

Posted at 10:21 pm in Similar cases

Zhang Yongnian continues his project to buy many of the artefacts looted from China between 1840 & 1949. As I have previously indicated, this method of retrieving the artefacts is one that few western museums would consider ethically acceptable even if they did have the money available to carry out such a plan.

China Daily

Reclaiming cultural relics from overseas
China Daily Updated: 2005-06-14 06:02

Cultural relic experts and NGOs have set the wheels in motion to begin reclaiming China’s national treasures from abroad, said an article in Beijing Review. The following are excerpts from the article:

On April 11, the China Cultural Relics Recovery Programme, funded by the China Foundation for the Development of Folklore Culture announced a large-scale programme to reclaim Chinese cultural relics scattered around the world.

Xie Chensheng, a senior cultural heritage preservation expert, said, “Cultural wealth can be shared by the whole world, but not the ownership, just like the property rights on software. Ownership of lost Chinese cultural treasures should lie with the Chinese people.”

Although some national treasures have been recovered since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the large-scale programme recently announced by the China Cultural Relics Recovery Programme is the first of its kind in China.

According to Zhang Yongnian, head of the programme, he and his colleagues will focus on items that were stolen, excavated or looted and trafficked abroad between 1840 and 1949.

Statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization suggests about 1.67 million Chinese cultural relics are held by more than 200 foreign museums in 47 countries. Some estimates put the number of Chinese cultural relics of that kind collected by individuals at 10 times that figure.

“It’s time to reclaim our cultural relics from abroad,” said Wang Weiming, director-general of the programme. “If we do not put forward our reclaiming request, I’m afraid there will be no hope for many cultural relics to return to China.”

But he is keen to stress this will not be an indiscriminate witch-hunt. He said: “We don’t mean to retrieve all the Chinese relics collected in foreign museums. Our next step is to compile a list of relics that need to be returned and there is much research work to do.”

Jin Yunchang, a researcher at the Palace Museum in Beijing, said today’s prices of cultural relics in the Chinese market have been geared to international standards and this has created a fair environment for China to compete on the world stage.

Jiang Yingchun, curator of the Beijing Poly Art Museum, said the development of the Chinese economy and prosperity of the auction market in China in recent years have also provided favourable conditions for the return of cultural relics.

Besides, with the blossoming of Chinese NGOs, many entrepreneurs have entered the cultural relics collection market and are gradually becoming a new force in the auction industry.

“There are three approaches for reclaiming cultural relics, which are purchasing, donation and reclaiming through judicial procedures,” said Wang Weiming. “Buyback is the main way. Private purchases make up over 80 per cent.”

According to him, some auction houses have accumulated much experience in reclaiming cultural relics and their process is simpler than that of governmental purchase. “Besides, because of the limited budget in this field of government operation, private purchases are the most feasible method to reclaim cultural relics from abroad at present,” said Wang.

Private entrepreneurs have become the main force behind these purchase groups. It is reported that private business people in Zhejiang Province contributed nearly 300 million yuan (US$36.2 million) towards purchasing Chinese cultural relics from abroad in 2004.

Lu Hanzhen, CEO of Ningbo Jinlun Group Corp, is a representative of the Zhejiang syndicate.

“Seeing so many Chinese cultural relics in other countries saddened me so I decided to reclaim as many as I could.”

Lu is not alone at overseas auctions. An insider said large travel agencies in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai have organised special travel groups of private entrepreneurs to fly to Europe and the United States to buy Chinese cultural relics in recent years.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Spring Auction, held in New York’s Rockefeller Center, sold over US$10 million of Chinese cultural relics, most of which were bought by Chinese.

All these indicate that private reclaiming efforts have become a major force in restoring relics to their place of origin.

“A national consensus is coming into being between private and government efforts in reclaiming our national treasures,” said Zhang Yongnian.

And Zhang proposed the government support the efforts of private individuals in restoring China’s cultural heritage. “However, it is not the only way to reclaim cultural relics. We should follow a rational set of principles to reclaim cultural relics with distinction,” he said.

Many cultural relics were lost over time to other countries in legal trades or friendly exchanges. “If these cultural relics are kept in foreign countries, we have no complaint because these relics show Chinese civilization and promote international cultural exchange,” said Wang Shixiang, an expert at State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

“However, we require those foreign governments to return for free Chinese cultural relics that were looted in the past by illegal methods,” said Wang.

According to Wang Weiming, the Chinese Government has subscribed to many different international conventions to protect cultural relics and to promote their return. In 1996, the government subscribed to a convention established by the International Institute for the Unification of Private Laws which stated the Chinese Government had the right to reclaim those cultural relics illegally looted in the past.

However, the road to reclaiming relics from abroad will be complex and long. Professor Su Bai at Peking University knows as much. “It needs much systemic research work because it is intertwined with issues of diplomacy, law, policy, funds, market, professional technology or personnel.”

(China Daily 06/14/2005 page4)

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