One might rejoice at today’s news about the Christie’s owner François Pinault’s offer to return two bronze animal heads to China, a “cause célèbre for Chinese nationalists” has garnered start-studded attention from Ai Weiwei to Jackie Chan, Yves Saint Laurent, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Dalia Lama and now the head of the PPR, maker of luxury fashion goods, husband of movie start Salma Hayek. Or, one might ask if this is really a cause for celebration.
Since our 2009 post on the subject stating that since the objects were taken before current laws were in place, China’s “only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market,” Pinault has found another way. Purchasing the bronzes then “donating” them back to China, “their rightful home”, Pinault has found another solution, and a way to improve business and diplomatic relations with a nation that boasts an impressive purchasing power by showing respect for its cultural heritage. The sculptures are of two animals in the Chinese zodiac, and were part of Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan 圓明園 (Imperial Summer Palace), sacked by French and British troops in the 19th century. China’s mission to track down the many other artifacts looted at that time has been widely published and sometimes criticized.
We will never know if Pinault’s act of generosity would take place if China had not emerged as PPR’s “fastest-growing market for its luxury goods” and if the celebrities had not shown their keen interest. What we do know, is that the return of these sculptures is the right thing to do, even if—and perhaps particularly—when the case of the animal heads is not a legal but a moral issue. For this, we applaud Pinault.
Yet, on the eve of the decision whether to renew restrictions on the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US, SAFE believes it is time to focus on China’s “other” looting problem, and we think, the most important problem: the plunder of its numerous ancient sites yet to be excavated. In her testimony in support of China’s request for a bilateral agreement that calls for import restrictions, SAFE Founder Cindy Ho said in 2005:
One of the biggest archaeological mysteries in China is the joint tomb of China’s only Empress Wu Zetian, and her husband Emperor Li Zhi. Called Qianling, it is the only tomb in China that holds two emperors and the only Tang tomb that has not been looted. It has yet to be excavated because for half a century, the proper time to excavate Qianling has been heavily debated. While the Chinese government is concerned about security and looting, archaeologists are eager to study the buried artifacts, which are tantamount to completing our knowledge of the Tang Dynasty. Attempted robberies—although presumably thwarted—have made everyone uneasy.
What is buried in Qianling will remain forever unknown if the pillage in China continues. We will never know what the ancient bamboo tablets with ancient inscriptions had to tell us just as the stories of daily life are lost when cylinder seals from Ancient Mesopotamia are looted. Nor will we ever understand the history of the ancient Northern People, the Chu Culture, much like the Vicús people of Peru, whose culture we know little about because of the illicit antiquities trade.
Nearly 10 years later, the official word is: no excavation of Qianling is considered for at least another 50 years, citing “preservation of the integrity of the tomb site and maintaining the environment of surrounding areas” as the top concern.
Authentic pieces of Yuanmingyuan may not resurface on the auction block any time soon, given the recent notoriety of the case of the animal heads and China’s continued rise as a formidable negotiator in the global arena. But the kind of plunder in the case of Yuanmingyuan is quite different from the kind of looting SAFE is most concerned about: the destruction of intact evidence of our undiscovered past, humanity’s most precious non-renewable resource.
Since January 2009, the US has decided to join with the international response to curbing looting and the illicit antiquities trade by granting China’s request for help in preserving its cultural heritage, our cultural heritage by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). As long as knowledge about our past cannot be revealed because of the threat of looting to feed the antiquities trade, SAFE supports import restrictions as an effective deterrent to looting. As long as another alternative to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (UNESCO) and the Cultural Property Implementation Act has yet to emerge, we urge the Department of State and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend to the President to continue to abide by the US obligations as a member state of UNESCO and reaffirm its commitment to shared global cultural heritage by renewal the MoU for another five years.
This is why until media pressure focuses on the “other” looting problem: the plunder of sites to feed the black market trade of antiquities, we could celebrate the repatriation of the the rabbit and the rat only with cautious optimism and hope that the US would also do the right thing, as Pinault has.