New legislation introduced to protect international cultural property

SAFE applauds the introduction of a new legislation aiming to improve the efficiency of the U.S. federal efforts to protect international cultural property. On November 13, Representatives Eliot L. Engel (D-NY) and Christ Smith (R-NJ) proposed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 5703) in response to the terrible state of affairs brought by ISIL/ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The legislation aims to appoint a White House Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, a position that will be responsible for amassing all the federal efforts to address cultural heritage protection issues by coordinating diplomatic, military, and law enforcement efforts.

Representative Smith said, “Our global cultural patrimony has all too often been targeted by extremists who want to wipe out the collective memories of ethnic and religious minorities from lands they seek to control and conquer . . . The fight to preserve our common cultural heritage, as well as to deny extremists such as ISIL resources from the sale of blood antiquities, is yet another front on the global war against terror.”

The legislation is admirable for its attempt to encompass all the major countries suffering from cultural heritage destruction. Section 3, Findings and Statement of Policy, lists major Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan), as well as Mali, Cambodia, China, and Haiti. It also proposes federal agencies to liaise with the Smithsonian Institution, which has been an integral part of the protection efforts in the Middle East, as SAFE previously reported here.

But those who have followed the legislative efforts for cultural heritage protection might remember what happened a little more than a decade ago. In 2003, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 3497/H.R.2009) ended up not being enacted and replaced by a lesser resolution.

So the question for H.R.5703 is, will this bill see a swifter resolution?

Faking It: A Case for Museums of “Fakes”

You may have heard in the news last week that a Chinese Museum has been forced to close following evidence revealing much of its collection to be fake. The museum reportedly cost more than 60 million yuan to build, with twelve exhibition halls of what are now apparently brilliant fakes. The Jibaozhai Museum in Hebai opened in 2010 and has a collection of more than 40,000 objects, only eighty of which the museum is now saying they’re “quite positive” are authentic.

This discovery resonates with Peru’s Museum of Gold, which, about a decade ago, was shown to have a collection of almost entirely fake pre-Columbian artifacts. Over 4,000 of their artifacts were shown to be fake by Indecopi, the Institute for the Defense of Competition and of Intellectual Property. Some of the pieces in that collection were amalgamations of ancient and contemporary gold (a la Frankenstein’s monster), while others were purely contemporary pieces made by artisans. That combination raises some interesting questions about the nature of authenticity which I won’t even attempt to delve into, but will surely be discussed as we learn more about the Jibaozhai’s collection.

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian quotes one Chinese blogger as suggesting that the Chinese museum should reopen as a museum of fakes, quipping, “If you can’t be the best, why not be the worst?” That’s actually an incredibly interesting suggestion, and deserves more thought beyond this flippant joke. First of all, is there not something that can be learned from a museum of fakes? In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Crime and Punishment partnered with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art to host an exhibition of forged artworks, demonstrating the public’s desire to see such eery doppelgängers. It is also interesting to consider that our brains respond differently to a work of art once we’ve been told that it’s fake. While the brain signals of a viewer cannot distinguish between genuine and fake works, viewing a piece they have been told is genuine triggers the rewards section of the brain, while viewing a piece they have been told is fake triggers the section of the brain associated with strategy and planning.

Would visiting a museum full of known fakes be beneficial in some way, then? Surely it could serve as a good educational tool for archaeology students or law enforcement professionals, or perhaps it would at least be entertaining like the wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.

jibaozhai item A possibly fake item on display at the Jibaozhai Museum.

Although the Jibaozhai Museum will likely always be associated with this rather embarrassing episode, I think that similar museums — ones that fully disclose that their collections are reproductions — could be the way forward. The objects within could be handled by children, allowing a tactile engagement that regular museums simply cannot. Moreover, museums with reproductions run no risk of accidentally acquiring a looted or stolen artifact.

As an art history student, I find it hard not to place extra value on an original work of art or artifact — something that maintains the “aura” that German critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined as an essential component of originality. However, I believe there is still a clear — although different — value that comes from displaying facsimiles (not “fakes”) rather than originals. Beyond just the shock value and excitement that comes from seeing something “fake,” perhaps there’s something to be said for a museum that communicates the past without any chance of plundering tombs or funding illicit antiquities trafficking.

What do you think? Do you think there’s some value in museums full of “fakes,” or would you rather see the real deal?

Top image: A visitor reads the notice erected by the Jibaozhai Museum after it was shut down amid reports that much of its collection is fake. Courtesy of What’s On Tianjin.

Why China’s MoU request should be renewed: its undiscovered ancient past

On our Facebook group yesterday, attention was brought to a mysterious stone animal uncovered this past January at an excavation site in Sichuan, China. Weighing 8.5 tons, and at 10ft 10in long, 3ft 11in wide and 5ft 7in tall, what else do we know about it besides its vastness?

What animal is it?
Media reports have called it a horse, a lion, or a panda, a cow, a pig. The latest “conclusion” is that the animal is a mythical rhinoceros, or a hippopotamus.

How old is it?
While most Chinese reports have the statue dating to the Qin Han dynasties 221 B.C.–A.D. 220, other reports speculate that it could have come from the Tang dynasty 618–907, or even Ming Qing 368—1840.

Perhaps most important, what was its purpose?
Archaeologists are reportedly baffled. At this writing, we have not found the discovery in Kaogu, or Archaeology journal, published by Institute of Archaeology, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  On China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage web site, there is one report from Sichuan Daily  mentioning a possible connection to calming floodwaters. What we do know is that the statue has ow become a symbol of good luck during the Lunar New Year, and lovingly nicknamed “史上最萌石兽” or “the most adorable stone animal in history.”

It will take some time for archaeologists to decipher the markings found on the statue’s surfaces, study the skeletal remains of other animals in its vicinity and make sense of the many other artifacts also discovered, including pots and reportedly ceremonial objects. For now, we have to contend with speculations, and hope that the site had not been looted, and will remain intact.

Stone horse and tiger Stone horse and tiger narrowly escaped looters

In 2008, four other stone animals in Guangxi province narrowly escaped being dug up and carted away by looters, thanks to reports from the villagers. Although not as big as the Sichuan animal, these statues appear equally difficult to steal, and equally mysterious. As mentioned in our earlier post about a looted 27-ton stone coffin measuring 4 meters long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high,  when it comes to looting for profit, size no longer matters.

The public hearing to review a five-year renewal of the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding that restricts certain categories of antiquities from importation into the US takes place today at the Department of State. For SAFE, the most important reason for the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend the renewal to the President is this Most of China’s vast ancient history remains undiscovered. There is much more mystery than there is knowledge about a civilization that spans more than 7,000 years. And the decision must be based on this: Do we want to know more?

We do, because China’s ancient cultural heritage is our shared cultural heritage. As Donny George said, cultural heritage is a human right. We all deserve to know more about our own humanity, knowledge is our right. As such, we must do everything we can to stop the plunder of cultural heritage. The UNESCO 1970 has its flaws, import restrictions alone will not end looting and the illicit antiquities trade that feeds it. But until a better alternative is recommended and implemented, the US must do what it can to safeguard our cultural heritage—not only for China—but for all of us. Anything else is just an excuse.

China’s “other” looting problem

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.

ChinastopplunderYet, 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.

Will Sudan’s History be Washed Away?

Sudan’s cultural heritage is in peril once again. The recent announcement by the Sudanese government to move forward with its plans to construct three massive Chinese-backed hydroelectric dams along the Nile River and its tributaries has put international archaeological and cultural heritage organizations on high alert.

The Nile River, which flows through ten countries from its origin deep in equatorial Africa and drains into the blossom-shaped delta region of northern Egypt, has been the watery lifeblood of those living along its banks for millennia. Civilizations great and small built their kingdoms and cities along the river, leaving behind magnificent traces of the past—many of which remain unexplored to this day. The proposed dams would submerge hundreds of archaeological sites forever under the rising water levels, including ancient settlements from the first Nubian Kingdom of Kerma, New Kingdom Egyptian sites, Nubian tower houses and rock carvings, medieval churches and forts, and Christian frescos.

This is not the first time a massive dam project has threatened Sudan’s cultural heritage. While dams allow for vital long-term water storage, generate electricity, guarantee water supplies, and provide protection against high floods and drought years, they often have profound impacts on the cultural and social landscapes of a region. Most recently, the controversial completion of Sudan’s $2 billion Merowe Dam on the fourth cataract in 2009 resulted in the permanent flooding of hundreds of archaeological sites, not to mention irreversible ecological consequences and the displacement of more than 70,000 people. The proposed Kajbar, Shereik and Dal dams would have a similar effect on their respective regions, again drowning hundreds of sites and displacing roughly 20,000 people from their ancestral homelands through compulsory resettlement to arid, inhospitable desert regions.

The Art Newspaper
Rescue and salvage efforts near the Merowe Dam in 2004

Presently, Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) is appealing to the international community for help, urging archaeological teams to conduct salvage excavations in Sudan before the sites meet their watery graves in the coming years. Yet, the very nature of salvage excavations raises important ethical questions. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do foreign archaeologists have when conducting salvage operations? Does their involvement in these missions facilitate the legitimatization of dam projects and subsequent impact on the environment and cultural landscape, as well as possible human rights abuses?

On the other hand, if these sites are going to be flooded forever shouldn’t we rescue and recover as many artifacts and information as possible? “We can’t be debating ethics while dams are built,” argues Neal Spencer, an archaeologist at the British Museum. In addition, archaeologists have been successful in generating public awareness to the point where foreign funders have pulled out of international projects, as was the case with the construction of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey. (Unfortunately, the international community was unable to stop the construction of the dam, which is scheduled for completion in 2013.)

Sudanese officials argue the dam projects are instrumental in exploiting the country’s resources for human development and necessary to “safeguard Sudan’s remaining water share allotted in the 1959 Nile Water Agreement.” The statement speaks to the recent signing of a new water-sharing agreement by six of the ten Nile Basin countries. Under the current 1959 Agreement, Egypt and Sudan are allotted the lion’s share of resources; however, the new 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement seeks a more equitable distribution of water between the countries. Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the new framework agreement, vowing to retain their historical water rights. Their refusal to sign directly reflects the decades-long struggle between the basin countries for greater control of resources, a struggle that directly plays into the decision to build the dams and ultimately the future of Sudan’s magnificent cultural heritage.

Trying to "put Humpty Dumpty back together again"

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

This post, originally published by SAFE on July 25, 2011, is reposted here as the exhibition is now on view through Jan. 6 2012 at New York’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

In a PBS report by Jeffrey Brown which aired on July 11, 2011, Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, said that during the 19th century when Chinese sculptures, created as religious icons, were first introduced to the West and became fine art. This created a demand from dealers, who then sold the objects to collectors and museums around the world, before laws were in place to prohibit such practice. This led to rampant looting of Buddhist caves and ancient sites.

One such site is Xiangtangshan (響堂山), the sixth-century group of caves, carved into the mountains in northern China. Although the limestone caves are still visited by worshipers as temples, they are now emptied of their original contents by looters to feed the international market demand.

Now, the exhibition “Echoes of the Past,” which originated from the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, has gathered together these objects that are now scattered around the world. Working with colleagues in China, experts have used virtual rendering to put back the sculptures in the caves where they originally belonged. Using “old-fashioned connoisseurship” and digitization which records very fine details correctly, it is now possible to “physically prove that a piece had been removed from the site.”

Why not recreate the cave and send everything back to China? According to Correspondent Jeffrey Brown, Wilson says, “the Chinese…haven’t made such a request.” Wilson also thinks that by allowing us to “see these elements back in place” the digital caves would offer an alternative to repatriation.

What do you think? The exhibition will travel to Dallas and San Diego next. The Sackler web site offers more information about the project and “Promoting the protection of Chinese cultural heritage.”

Photo: Jason Salavon and Travis Saul

Report on the demolitions in Kashgar and throughout East Turkestan

We are pleased to share the following report co-authored by Uyghur Human Rights Project‘s Amy Reger and Henryk Szadziewski “Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities” which, in the words of the authors:

documents the Chinese state’s top-down destruction of Uyghur communities in Kashgar and throughout East Turkestan. We discuss how the destruction of Uyghur neighborhoods has resulted in the loss of both physical structures, including Uyghur homes, shops and religious sites, and patterns of traditional Uyghur life that cannot be replicated in the new, heavily-monitored Chinese-style apartment blocks where many have been forcibly relocated.

In 2009, SAFE responded to the destruction of Kashgar Old City with a Statement of Concern and Appeal for International Cooperation to Save Ancient Kashgar, which was signed by a coalition of cultural heritage organizations, archaeologists and art historians. The statement was mailed to the Director of UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Our intern, Ana Escobedo also created an awareness campaign about the issues with a “Save Kashgar” cause page on Facebook (now boasting more than 1,000 members) and an online petition. In addition, she also launched a flickr group dedicated to creating a consolidated photographic record of pre-destruction Kashgar. Read about the project here.

We thank the UHRP for the report, which includes the following recommendations to the Chinese government to:

  • Cease immediately all demolitions of Uyghur neighborhoods across East Turkestan until a transparent process of genuine consultation has been undertaken with residents;
  • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and abide by Article 17, which “protect[s] against ‘arbitrary or unlawful interference’ with one’s home”; Article 25, which protects the right to participation in public life either “directly or through freely chosen representatives; and Article 27, which mandates effective [UHRP italics] participation by indigenous people and the sustainability of the indigenous economy”;
  •  Meet signed and ratified obligations contained in the World Heritage Convention and end false assertions of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) support for the demolition project in Kashgar;
  • Raise the demolitions at bilateral human rights dialogues with the People’s Republic of China in such a way that does not devalue egregious human rights abuses in the face of ‘economic realities’, making clear that respect for human rights and robust economies are part of the same process;
  • Condemn the use of UNESCO’s name to approve the demolition of Kashgar Old City and demand open reporting by Chinese media of the demolitions that permits a considered evaluation of its merit; and
  • Send observers to East Turkestan with unfettered access to Uyghur communities to impartially oversee that all international and domestic legal protections have been utilized in demolition projects across the region.

Captain Gunter’s "loot": Antiquities from China’s Summer Palace continue to sell at auction

The sale of a 8.5 by 5.8 centimeter Qing dynasty (late 18th- early 19th century) gold box for £490,000 ($764,694.00) at London auction house Woolley and Wallis has provoked an international debate. The gold box, embellished with seed pearls, enamel glass panels, and floral motifs, inscribed in 1860 “Loot from Summer Palace, Perkin, October 1860, Captain James Gunter, King’s Dragoon Guards.”This engraving not only increased the box’s value by 50%, but also sparked a passionate dialogue about looting during war, the Chinese art market, and auction house responsibility.

All is Fair in Loot and War?

Whether we regard items such as the Captain Gunter box as “stolen,” “plundered,” “contraband,” “spoils of war,” “ransacked,” “pillaged,” or as Gunter appropriately chose “looted,” the taking of valuable goods from invaded areas during war is as old as war itself. Art Law: Cases and Materials perhaps says it best:

This historical sketch [referring to Roman activities] emphasizes the problem that can arise when the army of one nation occupies another. Historically, the world community did very little to protect national patrimony from plunder and destruction. Conquering armies believed they possessed the right to despoil a apparently defeated enemy. What about the interest of future generations in their nation’s cultural property? Should they be deprived of their national artistic heritage merely because their country was defeated in battle? The protection of national patrimony from plunder has ramifications beyond the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations. (Leonard D. DuBoff, Sherri Burr, Michael D. Murray, Art Law: Cases and Materials, 2004, 32).

The looting of the Summer Palace on October 18th and 19th, 1860 is considered by many as one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history. The Opium War, also known as the Anglo-Chinese War, occurred in two stages between 1839 and 1860 after trade relations broke down between the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire. During the war, British forces razed historic Chinese sites and looted Chinese “souvenirs.”

Interesting enough, the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace occurred under the orders of the British High Commissioner to China, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, son of Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin responsible for the “preservation” of the metopes, friezes, and pedimental sculptures of the Acropolis, now in the British Museum. The destruction of the Summer Palace, a brash act of pyromania, led to the death of hundreds of eunuchs trapped inside the compound and the “pillaging” of some 1.5 million relics. This signaled the end of the Opium War. In October 2010, China lamented the 150 year anniversary of the Opium War and the burning of the Summer Palace.

Captain Gunter’s inscribed box is only one of the many items that he “looted” from the Summer Palace. On May 19th, 2011, Duke’s Auctioneers of Dorchester Captain Gunter’s descendants sold eleven pieces from the Summer Palace, including a 18th Century Qianlong period yellow jade pendant with a carved dragon for £478,000. In the auction catalogue, Duke’s identified the pieces as “acquired” from the Summer Palace, rather than the more controversial term “looted.” The Gunter family still holds possession of an extensive collection of artifacts– ivory chopsticks, jade boxes, jade chimes, bowls, and a jadeite belt hook estimated to be worth over £2 million. Guy Schwinge, an expert from Duke’s, recounts his visit to the Gunter estate in May 2011. He stated in The Daily Mail:

When I arrived at the house and was shown into the sitting room, I was not sure what I was going to see. We discussed the market for Chinese works of art over a cup of coffee and the results we had achieve at our recent Melplash Court sale, which included many Chinese works. The family then began to pull the most stunning pieces of jade from the back of a display cabinet in the corner of the room. I was stunned by the quality and number of pieces of jade that emerged from the cabinet. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck stand up. (The Daily Mail, May 4, 2011).

The future of these items is still not known.

The “looting” that took place at the Summer Palace is not an isolated incident. In fact, the Chinese Cultural Relics Foundation predicts that over ten million cultural objects were “plundered” from China between 1840 and 1949. The 150th anniversary of the Summer Palace looting, coupled with China’s growing wealth and status has ignited a strong and unified movement to return Chinese antiquities to their homeland.

The Chinese Art Market

However, instead of going to public museums, most Chinese antiquities enter private collections, displayed as a sign of wealth and power, not patriotism. Andrew Jabobs, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote in 2009:  

At its core, such mixed signals [of the Chinese search for relics] are an outgrowth of China’s evolving self-identity. Is it a developing country with fresh memories of its victimization of imperial powers? Or, is it the world’s biggest exporter, eager to ensure good relations with the outside world to protect its trade dependent economy? (The New York Times, “China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums,” December 17, 2009).  

The China Daily, agreed that the motives of China’s wealthy class to purchase of antiquities is questionable. They wrote, Although patriotism is playing a part in this hunting to recapture looted treasures, experts say that majority of buyers are in fact more interested in the investment potential of ancient works–and the glamour (Cheng Yingqi, The China Daily, December 15, 2010).

The trade of Chinese antiquities is big business. The sale of Chinese artifacts has now surpassed the purchase of Old Master paintings (Scott Rayburn, “China Antique Sales Raise Record Sums”, The China Daily, May 23, 2011). The revenue from the sale of Chinese works now exceeds $10 billion annually. After the October 2011 sale of “looted objects” from the Summer Palace, Tom Flynn, author of the blog ArtKnows, stated:

Recent auctions in the UK–even those held in the British Provinces–have demonstrated the lengths to which Chinese dealers and collectors will travel– and indeed how high they are prepared to bid–to secure Imperial wares. Their buying power has now reached a level at which few Western dealers can compete (Art Knows, October 27, 2011).

In recent years, major auctions houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have opened locations in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong– each enjoying enormous success. For example, a 2010 auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong specializing in Asian art totaled a record $447 million (Giles Turner, “Buying Frenzy for Chinese Art,” Financial News, May 12, 2011).

Government Regulation

The sale of artifacts “looted” from the Summer Palace is complicated by China’s export laws and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States. China’s Ministry of Culture issued “Interim Provisions on the Administration of the Import and Export of Art” on July 17, 2009. Article 5 of the provision states: “Art works are prohibited from being imported or exported if they contain content which:  

(1) violates the basic principles of the Constitution of China;

(2) endangers the unification of the country, national sovereignty or territorial integrity;

(3) divulges state secrets, endangers state security, honor or interests;

(4) incites ethnic hatred, discrimination, or harms ethnic unity or habits and customs;

(5) propagates or publicizes cults or superstitions;

(6) disrupts social order or stability;

(7) advocates or publicizes obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, horror, or instigates crime;

(8) libels, slanders or harms the legal interests of others;

(9) deliberately tampers with history or severely distorts history;

(10) harms public morals or ethnic cultural traditions; or

(11) other content prohibited by laws, regulations and rules.” (Nancy M. Murphy, “Provisions on the Managements of the Import and Export of Art,” July 17, 2009).

These provisions, in summary, give the government complete control over any and all works of art which enter or exit the country. These rules can be broadly interpreted and make it almost impossible to export Chinese antiquities from the country. The provisions also have created an underground trade, or black market, for Chinese antiquities.

Furthermore, the United States entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with China on January 14th, 2009, “acting pursuant to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property, to which both countries are party; and desiring to reduce the incentives for pillage of irreplaceable archaeological material representing the rich cultural heritage of China.” (United States, Department of State). For this reason, the trade in Chinese antiquities, particularly items that are newly discovered or have no established provenance, has shifted from the United States to the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. For more information on the China MOU visit  SAFE’s web site here and SAFECORNER’s coverage at “Bilateral Agreements at Work,” “Trying to put ‘Humpty Dumpty back together again,” and “Cultural Heritage in Danger: Reacting to the New York Times.”

Yuanmingyuan Park, which houses the remaining Summer Palace relics, recently called upon foreign museums to return the “looted” relics. According to the United Kingdom’s The Daily Telegraph, the main target of this action was the British Museum (Peter Foster, “China to Study British Museum for Looted Artefacts,” The Daily Telegraph, October 19, 2009). Experts, however, are doubtful that items will ever be returned from international museums. Instead, some argue that the government’s public campaign is an attempt to encourage private collectors in China to return or donate the antiquities to the Yuanmingyuan Park. In November 2011, the Yuanmingyuan Park called for a boycott of auctions selling “looted” relics. This, along with the founding of several non-governmental organizations such as the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, has led to aggressive action to retrieve the 1.5 million relics “stolen” from the Summer Palace (“China Experts to Search Abroad for Looted Relics,” France 24, October 19, 2009).

Questionable Auction House Sales

The art world was stunned on March 7, 2009 by what is now being called the “Yves Saint Laurent Fiasco.” The Times’ Richard Morris reported: “The fury of the reactions to an act of sabotage by an incensed Chinese bidder has rocked the art world” (The Times, March 7, 2009). At an Asian sale at Christie’s Paris a pair of bronze animal heads, once of a set of twelve that made up a water clock at the Summer Palace, achieved a hammer price of £28 million. The bidder, Cai Mingchao, a once trusted Christie’s client, promptly refused to pay. In a statement he said his intentions were to “draw attention to this sale of looted treasure…. There is an indignation in China that Chinese bidders have to spend millions simply to retrieve artifacts that were looted from the country” (The Times, March 7, 2009).

Christie’s options included: (1) sue for the payment, drawing attention to the fact that they are selling known “looted” goods; or (2) attempt to re-auction the heads to buyers now aware of the questionable provenance and potential for a title claim. Both options would damage Christie’s image, respectability, reliability, and result in extreme legal fees. The bronze animal heads were returned to the consignor. However, unconfirmed reports indicate that Christie’s may receive some form of payment. Cai Mingchao was, therefore, successful in his statement about “looted” goods. This episode served as a wake-up call. As a result, auction houses in the United Kingdom now require pre-registration applications, financial references, guarantees, and deposits at least three days before Asian art sales. Such measures limit the possible economic losses for auction houses. Yet, these pre-registration requirements they do not prevent the loss of reliability and reputation that are key to the auction business.

This brings us back to Captain Gunter’s gold box.  Was the risk of auctioning an obviously “looted” item worth Woolley and Willis’ premium return on $764,694? Granted, the Gunter family currently has possession, but who truly owns such “looted” items? Where should they go, what should happen to them? These are questions not only relevant to the Captain Gunter case, but to the all the artifacts “stolen” or “looted” from the Summer Palace.

Photos Courtesy of Woolley and Wallis, The Daily Mail, and The Times.

Looking ahead: 2012 and beyond

With 2012 now upon us, SAFE looks forward to the coming year with anticipation, and offers a few predictions.

As discussion and publicity surrounding the repatriation of antiquities continues and public awareness and media focus on the actions of source countries (Italy, Greece, Peru, Turkey, Egypt, Bulgaria, etc.) increase, the return of cultural patrimony will accelerate during 2012 and the years that follow. The question is no longer whether such artifacts will be returned. In most cases, the only question is when.

Repatriation by U.S. museums and collectors in recent years (some 130 artifacts have already returned to Italy; the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s return to the upper half of the Weary Herakles to Turkey occurred this past year; Yale University’s transfer of Macchu Picchu artifacts back to Peru began in 2011 and will be completed by December 2012) provide incentive for source countries to continue their investigation to identify and seek the return of their cultural patrimony from museums around the world … with particular focus on objects shown among the thousands of photographs discovered by Italian police (the Giacomo Medici Archive seized at the Geneva Freeport in 1995), by Swiss authorities and Greek investigators. This vast trove of photos now in the hands of researchers, law enforcement and prosecutors and cultural attaches in several countries will continue to serve as source material during the coming year for the return of objects acquired by various museums (e.g., the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, the Miho Museum in Japan, the Toledo Museum of Art, and others.

Meanwhile, continuing issues at U.S. museums will be resolved (or very nearly so), such as the case that pits the St. Louis Art Museum against the U.S. government over ownership of a 3,200-year-old mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, which disappeared from the inventory of the Cairo Museum in the late 1950s and was sold to SLAM for $500,000 in 1998. We predict the matter will be decided during the coming year. And in southern Utah, we expect another shoe to drop in the ongoing Four Corners antiquities trafficking case with more hand-wringing over FBI methods and the DOJ’s duty to enforce laws that prohibit illegal digging and theft of artifacts on federal or Indian lands.

Finally, in response to the aggressive and well-organized destruction of archaeological sites in China a crackdown on antiquities theft in Shanxi, Henan and other effected provinces will continue as Chinese authorities seek to preserve the estimated five percent of all archaeological sites on the mainland that have not yet been plundered. As for a different kind of plunder, will the much publicized Chinese mission to track down and document objects that have been taken from Yuanmingyuan (Beijing’s “Old Summer Palace”) result in a request for their return?

All told, 2012 promises to be an interesting and eventful year. Best wishes to all.

Connecticut: FBI Investigate Stolen Tang Chinese Heads


The FBI is investigating, but mystery surrounds two Chinese Tang dynasty sandstone heads of Lohan “valued at $800,000 each” which were recently stolen from a US private collection:

The two Louhan sculptures, which are approximately 1,000-years-old, were stolen from an undisclosed location in Westport, Connecticut. The sandstone works of art are two of only a handful known to exist and both date to China’s Tang Dynasty. The sculptures are 15 inches high and 15 inches long and weigh between 55 and 70 pounds each. Westport is a coastal town of about 25,000 residents and one of the wealthiest locations in the US. Police are not disclosing when the sculptures were taken or the exact location of the private collection.

The story has attracted no little attention in the newspapers, even reaching the daily main in the UK. Most of the attraction seems to be that items like this which, from the photos at least, are singularly unattractive to look at are worth such a lot on the “ancient art” market. But it seems to me one rather important question is not being addressed in the media.

It seems to me quite unlikely that these heads were dug up in Connecticut by local pot-hunters. The question therefore arises where they had been discovered and how – and when – they reached a US private collection. Why are there just the heads of what were clearly at one time complete figures? What happened to the rest? Did the art collector throw them away, or the dealer who sold them to him? Or the person that removed them from wherever they were to be found in China (and where was that?) so they could end up in some rich guy’s collection?

The released photos admittedly do not really show the items to their best advantage. What they do show are two heads with grey matter smeared all over them which certainly has the appearance in the photos of soil. It looks like these was still soil adhering to these sculptures when they were photographed. If that is what it is, it seems rather unlikely that they are still in that state if they had passed through some distinguished pre-1930s collection. Are not the FBI looking for some items which in fact are relatively freshly dug-up ?

I assume that before the FBI start looking for where these items are now, they looked into where they should be; after all if they find them they surely cannot give them back to a person who cannot document that they are indeed their legal possessor – like showing they had been legally exported from China. So, how did these items enter the USA, and when?

Photo: Have you seen these missing heads (AP, via Daily Mail)?

Bilateral agreements at work

On March 11, 2011, the U.S. returned 14 ancient artifacts to China that had been seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from illicit traffickers in 2010.

“Following the signing of an agreement between the United States and China in 2009, the two countries have been working closely to prevent illicit trafficking of archaeological objects.” Xinhua reported. The agreement refers to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which restricts the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US.

These bilateral agreements have been the source of much debate among those who are interested in reducing the incentive for looting and others who wish to collect archaeological material from other nations without restriction.

Deng Hongbo, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Chinese Embassy was quoted as describing the repatriation as a “telling example of how close our law enforcement cooperation has become, and how firmly we both are committed to this dimension of our bilateral relations.” On this day, there appeared to be no doubt that cooperation between the two nations via the MOU was working to combat the illicit antiquities trade.

Photo: Northern Qi Dynasty limestone Buddha returns to China (Xinhua)

Egypt and China agree to cooperate on protection of cultural property

Another indication that bilateral agreements prohibiting “export, import or transfer the ownership of cultural properties” is an effective solution to protecting cultural property is illustrated in the latest accord between China and Egypt. Both parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, China and Egypt “have suffered heavily from thefts, illegal excavating and trafficking of cultural heritages.” The agreement also allows each nation to seek the return of stolen cultural properties, according to this report from Xinhua.

Size does not matter

When it comes to looting and smuggling antiquities, size does not appear to matter. Not anymore, anyway.

Special Agent James McAndrew of the Department of Homeland Security mentioned in a recent presentation that the days are gone when only small portable artifacts are smuggled. Indeed, the case of the 27-ton Tang sarcophagus stolen from the tomb of Tang Empress Wu Huifei (AD 699-737) has taken this alarming trend to a new extreme.

How did a 27-ton stone coffin measuring 4 meters long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high leave China unnoticed? It is huge (as the photo indicates) in size and weight, in addition to its obvious historical significance. How did it enter the US? Container ship?

Something this big had to have been hacked into many pieces before the looters and the smugglers could haul it, even with heavy machinery. Just think: if the coffin were cut up into 20 pieces, each would still weigh over a ton. How many people did it take? Who would display a huge stone coffin in a private home or was it going to be resold to some museum?

So, finally, what is all worth it? For the buyer in Virginia who reportedly paid $1 million for the piece, any price is too high when his purchase had to be returned. Given China’s penalties (considered Draconian by some) the price the looter(s) pay could be life. For us all, the potential damage to the piece itself, the rest of the tomb and the history it contains can never be repaid. Even if the sarcophagus was not 27-ton heavy.

Looting at any size does not pay.

Ebay & Looting

Peruvian archaeology has found an unusual ally in the battle against looting in the internet and websites such as eBay. This is according to Charles Stanish, a UCLA archaeologist, writing in the June 2009 issue of Archaeology. Stanish has excavated for 25 years at fragile archaeological sites in Peru. It was feared that online auction sites would increase looting as the looter could sell directly to the buyer eliminating costly middlemen. In fact, online auction websites have actually helped reduce looting as the average looter or craftsman can now make more money selling cheap fakes online rather than spend weeks digging for the real thing and running the risk of not finding anything. It is less costly to transport a fake and the risk of arrest is removed. Moreover, workshops churning out cheap fakes and replicas can also produce elaborately detailed fakes which can be so authentic even experts are deceived. Locals can use original ancient moulds, often found during excavations but of no real value themselves, to create exact replicas using clay from original sources and local minerals to make paint for decorating the pottery. The only way to know for sure if a piece is genuine is through thermo-luminescence dating which calculates when the pottery has been fired. But this is expensive for the buyer and many sellers will not offer refunds on pottery that has undergone “destructive” analysis. Ten years ago the ratio of real to fake Peruvian artefacts for sale online was roughly 50:50. It is now thought that only 5% of items are authentic, 30% are fakes and the rest are too difficult to judge from online photographs. This turnaround emphasises how paradoxically online auction sites have helped to combat the trade in illicit antiquities. Also, its not just Peruvian fakes that are flooding the illicit antiquities online market; Chinese, Bulgarian, Egyptian and Mexican workshops are also producing fakes at a frenetic pace.

To read my thoughts on fakes, please read my follow up article.


A Closer Look at China’s Intentions: Reacting to the New York Times

On December 17th, the New York Times published an article regarding China’s ongoing international mission to survey and examine Chinese antiquities taken from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace (or Yuanmingyuan 圓明園) that are currently housed in museums and private collections in Britain, the United States, and France.

Since the publication of this article, there has been a slew of reaction from all corners of the blogosphere, mostly expressing outrage against the inflammatory and one-sided arguments of the article’s author, Andrew Jacobs. For instance, cultural heritage blogger Lee Rosenbaum conveys shock at Jacobs’ dismissive tone against the Chinese and their legitimate endeavor, and that such a disparaging article could be “presented on Page One as a news report rather than a commentary.” Another piece by SAFE, delved into the suspect relationship between Jacobs and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, suggesting that biased reporting on the part of the New York Times was due to their intimacy with the museum.

In lieu of this current controversy, I feel that it is worthwhile to bring to the forefront of the discussion the facts of China’s recent efforts.

First of all, it should be acknowledged that the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is a point of considerable humiliation to many Chinese, and as such, a great deal of national pride is involved in reclaiming artifacts like the bronze zodiac heads. That being said however, expressing consternation about the artifacts that were taken during the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is completely within China’s right, as Italy and Greece have previously demonstrated. Thus, China’s interest in reclaiming these artifacts should not be disparaged as merely a publicity stunt. That the Chinese see these objects as a part of China’s rightful patrimony is not something the international community should vilify.

Secondly, the problem with the Yuanmingyuan bronzes, however, is that they were removed before any of the current laws protecting archaeological patrimony were enacted, making its situation different from that of, say, the Euphronios krater, which was shown to have been taken out of Italy in the mid-1900s, and more like that of the Elgin Marbles. As such, China does not have a legal right to demand these items back. Thus, their only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market, which is exactly what they have been doing. Take for example, the purchase of the bronze horse head in 2007 from Sotheby’s by Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho for a total of $8.9 million; and more recently, the Christie’s Paris auction of the rat and rabbit heads that were a previously in the possession of designer Yves Saint Laurent. Considering how sensitive a topic the sacking of Yuanmingyuan is to many Chinese, it seems only natural that being forced to purchase them back at exorbitant amounts of money chafes at Chinese national pride.

Chinese nationalism, however, is not the central issue. Instead what we should focus on is that these high-profile, “hot” items are being auctioned on the antiquities market despite the fact that it is well-known where they came from and under what circumstances. Furthermore, although they remain out of the reach of some of the major pieces of international cultural heritage legislation (for instance China’s current MOU, which stipulates that items must be older than 250 years of age to qualify for repatriation), it is still not taboo to sell them. Consider this, what would have happened if a piece of the Parthenon were to suddenly surface on the market? How often does that happen anymore? The infamy surrounding the Yuanmingyuan bronze heads over the last several years should be enough to deter western markets from touching them, and yet, there is very little negative sentiment directed towards the selling of such obviously looted Chinese antiquities on the international art market. If a similar situation were to have occurred involving Roman, Greek, or Mayan antiquities, there is no doubt that the media would have reacted much differently; no one would be impugning Italian, Greek, or Central American national pride.

What these events have shown, when we cut away all of the political posturing, is that there is a serious imbalance between the protection of cultural heritage from different source countries. On one hand, Italy, Greece, and several nations in Central America have caused enough political and legal upheaval against market nations like the US that it is now extremely taboo to sell high-profile antiquities from those countries. No such taboo yet exists for antiquities from China, India, and many Southeast Asian nations. This is what needs to change, and this is what people should be aware of.

The New York Times and the Met: Too close for comfort (again)?

In The New York Times December 16 article. Andrew Jacobs writes about a Chinese delegation’s recent visit to US museums to document objects that have been plundered from Yuanmingyuan (Beijing’s “Old Summer Palace”). In 1860, the imperial palace was looted and burnt to the ground by order of James Bruce Elgin, the son of Lord Elgin who took the famed Parthenon sculptures from Greece.

Describing the delegation as a “treasure hunting team” whose effort is little more than a public relations show, the reporter characterizes the group as a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats barging into American museums in a noisy campaign to further its nationalistic agenda, stirring up popular sentiment against the West.

Contrast it to a similar report by The Telegraph about the same delegation’s visit to the British Museum, which appeared on October 19. Entitled “China to study British Museum for looted artefacts”, The Telegraph’s story has a noticeably different tone. Even more significant is The Times article’s absence of the palace director Chen Mingjie’s statement about the delegation’s mission. “We have clarified that this is an attempt to document rather than to seek a return of those relics even though we do hope some previously unknown relics might surface and some might be returned to our country during our tracing effort.” The Telegraph quoted Mr. Chen.

This is a curious omission, given the clear indication that the director was interviewed for both articles. Did The New York Times not ask the director why the team was visiting the Met but decided to draw its own conclusions? Or did it simply choose not to include it?

As one of the nearly 120 online comments from The Times article states: “This bemused and farcical account does a great disservice to readers who rely on the New York Times for objective and insightful journalism.” We agree. What a pity that The New York Times has once again not given its readers what they deserve: a full story, with a balanced view.

In “A critical look at U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues” author and journalist Roger Atwood criticizes The New York Times that its “coverage of the Met looks complacent and credulous”. Referring to the fact that its chairman emeritus, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, has long been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Met, Atwood questions “whether the Times is too close to the Met to cover it properly”. Indeed, this latest article begs the question: are the Chinese delegation’s questions regarding provenance of the Met’s collection too close for comfort?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the name of ethics…

Yesterday, a French celebrity collector, Pierre Berge, alleged that he offered to donate two Chinese bronze animal heads to Taiwan’s National Palace Museum but was turned down. AFP reports that the museum’s refusal was rooted in ethical reasons as well as a reluctance to incite conflict with China. The article quotes the director of the museum, Chou Kung-shin saying: “In accordance with professional museum ethics, we can’t collect disputed artefacts.”

“Disputed” is the keyword here. These artifacts were not recently looted, but stolen from Beijing by the British and French during the Opium Wars in 1860, and Beijing has repeatedly asked for their repatriation. There were no laws in place 150 years ago to protect these items – the museum’s refusal to accept the bronzes was on moral, not legal, grounds. This incident is reflective of what I hope is a growing consciousness of the role that cultural heritage plays in a country’s relations with other nations.

Saving Kashgar

On May 27th the New York Times ran an article on the demolition of the historic city of Kashgar. Only two days later SAFECORNER posted an editorial on Kashgar’s importance as a historical cultural site. It was at this point that I was introduced to the situation as a SAFE intern. Back then I didn’t know anything about Kashgar, or Chinese archaeology. Yet somehow this crisis, which has only exploded since that first article, has become a pet project of mine and goes to show how a cultural disaster like Kashgar can have an incredible pull on anyone who takes the time to get involved.

I started my adventure on Facebook. To raise awareness for the cause and to rally supporters behind SAFE’s message I created a Facebook Cause page which I named “Save Kashgar ”. I loaded it with whatever information I had available to me at the time, which was only a few articles and the information I had gained from the SAFECORNER editorial. Later I was able to set up a Flickr group to create a photo documentation of the Old City. I also set up a petition appealing to the Chinese Cultural Minister to save what remained of the cultural heritage of this city. However, it quickly became apparent to me that this was so much more than a demolition of a city. It was the destruction of the Uyghur culture. A culture that had existed for hundreds of years in this location was being wiped out.

In an effort to find recruits to my newly formed cause page I reached out to the Uyghur and Archaeology related groups on Facebook. It was at this moment when I discovered I was not alone in this fight. I went to every group I could think of to let them know about what I was doing, but everywhere I went I found links to other Kashgar related Facebook pages. Groups such as “Save Kashgar, Xinjiang, China from Demolition!” and “Saving Kashgar” encouraged followers to raise their voices against the destruction. The creator of “Save Kashgar, Xinjiang, China from Demolition!,” Nikhat Rasheed, is responsible for a YouTube video further demonstrating the importance of Kashgar to the Uyghurs and the world. Her group has also sponsored an event in Toronto, Canada to show solidarity with the Uyghur people. On July 1, 2009, a group of Uyghurs performed a traditional dance in celebration of Canada Day. Members of this Facebook group attended, furthering the public display of unity with the Uyghur cause. Ms. Rasheed has also written a wildly popular petition that has raised almost 7,000 signatures in a short period of time. Another Facebook Cause page “Save Kashgar!,” created by dedicated advocate Miriam J. Woods, has generated a petition that has already received over 1,000 signatures. This petition asks President Obama and Congress to appeal to the Chinese government to cease the demolition. Her cause page is raising money for the Uyghur American Association/Uyghur Human Rights Project.

It was vital to me to ensure that these various efforts would not be in competition with each other, but work together to most effectively spread the word. Over the past months I got in contact with both Ms. Rasheed and Ms. Woods, both of whom are dedicated and tireless in their fight to save Kashgar and the Uyghur people. They both became a source of encouragement for me with kind words like “I’m really glad that there are people like you who are working so hard to try to save cultural and historical sites like Kashgar.” It was around the same time I contacted the UAA/UHRP. These groups instantly responded to my plea for more information and I was granted the privilege of a phone conversation with Amy Reger and Henryk Szadziewski from the UHRP. These two sat down with me for an hour or more telling me all about Kashgar and the Chinese government’s plans to culturally assimilate and economically segregate the Uyghur people because they are “perceived as a threat”. They impressed upon me how deeply emotional the demolition of Kashgar as a symbol of destroyed identity was affecting the Uyghur people and their supporters.

This conversation was a turning point for me in my journey. Before I saw the issue from my point of view as an archaeologist, but after these varied and passionate communications I saw that this was a human crisis. What has amazed me most over these past two months has been the number of people reaching out to me, telling me their story, letting me know that Kashgar was important to them too. Perhaps the most evocative message I received was from man and his wife. They could not join the cause page or sign the petition because their actions were being monitored and it could have affected their visa status, but they wanted to reach out to a fellow advocate. Here I was, a California girl who has never been anywhere near China, communicating and reaching out to someone who had experienced Kashgar first hand. It was a wonderful feeling.

Of course, the Kashgar cause has grown far and beyond any of my actions on Facebook, especially in response to the riots in Urumchi. Ms. Rasheed created the web site to better document the Kashgar situation. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) has sent a letter to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and ICOMOS China expressing their grave concern over the situation. People like Marc Forster, the filmmaker responsible for films such as “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland” and “Quantum of Solace” are rallying behind the cause. For his movie “The Kite Runner” he lived in a few months in Kashgar, where parts of the movie were filmed. In a press release from the Uyghur American Association Forster said, “I am saddened to know that their homes, their faith and their heritage is being taken away from them and I urge everyone to help save Old Town.”

Meanwhile, SAFE has become an outspoken advocate for the survival of this ancient city. Respected signatories such as Colin Renfrew, Heritage Watch, the UAA/UHRP and many others joined with SAFE to sign the “Statement of Concern and Appeal for International Cooperation To Save Ancient Kashgar”. This letter implored Mr. Francesco Bandarin, the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, to include Kashgar on the World Heritage List and to persuade the Chinese authorities to preserve Kashgar and perform salvage archaeology. The letter was an important step in international support to assist in the survival of this city.

Kashgar has evoked an impassioned and ever-growing response, in me and many others. More and more people from around the world are reaching out and speaking out against this demolition and the destruction of a culture. Uyghur residents, as well as international architects, students and archaeologists, have banded together to create a united force dedicated to spreading the word. Public awareness in on the rise and it doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

As for me, my heart goes out the Uyghurs who are losing the heart of their civilization. I will continue to support in the best way I can. My cause page is closing in on 700 members and it is my hope that I can continue to reach these people and keep them united in this work against this cultural and human crime.

Let us know what you think!






Statement of Concern and Appeal for International Cooperation to Save Ancient Kashgar


July 6, 2009
Mr. Francesco Bandarin
UNESCO World Heritage Centre
7, place de Fontenoy
75352 Paris, France

Dear Mr. Bandarin:

We write to convey our profound concern for the ancient city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of Northwest China and urge you to exert your influence to have the city included in the Chinese portion of the Silk Road being considered for the World Heritage List.

Reportedly, 85% of the ancient portion of the city is under demolition. The stated reason is that the old buildings are susceptible to earthquakes and pose a danger to residents. Though we support taking measures to ensure the safety of citizens, we are concerned that the demolition of Old Kashgar will deal a serious blow to the cultural heritage and archaeological patrimony of the Uyghur people, China, and all mankind.

Since Old Kashgar was a key transit point on the Northern Steppe Route of the Silk Road, it is startling to discover that this fabled oasis city has not been included in the World Heritage List proposal. Besides having been an important Silk Road trading post, Old Kashgar is an historic center of Islamic and Uyghur culture, being the home of China’s largest mosque as well as the holiest Muslim site in Xinjiang, the tomb of Abakh Khoja. According to historian George Michell, author of the 2008 book Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road, Old Kashgar is “the best preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia.”

Given the city’s vast tangible and intangible cultural heritage, we believe that considering the Silk Road for the World Heritage List without including Old Kashgar would be an incomplete designation. According to the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, “To be deemed of outstanding universal value, a property must also meet the conditions of integrity and/or authenticity and must have adequate protection and management system to ensure its safeguarding.” We believe Old Kashgar meets the criteria for cultural heritage under the Assessment of Outstanding Universal Value.

China’s present treatment of Kashgar is all the more perplexing when one considers that as recently as 2007, the country appeared to be committed to preserving the old city in a way that respected its heritage and complied with international expectations. In that year, according to published reports, the Xinjiang Construction Department organized a group of experts to begin assessing an urban preservation plan for Kashgar. Among the topics discussed were how to preserve the old town, how to further study the relationship between Kashgar’s modern condition and its rich cultural past, and how to protect Kashgar’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

The fact that this seminar was held with official sanction proves that China is capable of protecting historical sites within its borders if it so chooses. In fact, Chinese law supports our view. Articles 16-18 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China for the Protection of Cultural Relics, as amended and adopted in 2002, stipulate that protective measures for immovable cultural relics must be taken before beginning any and all construction activities, including drilling, digging, or blasting. These articles also require that devices for the preservation of cultural relics must be included in the design plan of any new construction project undertaken.

So China has a demonstrable commitment to protecting her past. What the country needs now is international support. Thus we ask the World Heritage Convention to confer with its colleagues in China to clarify the plans for Kashgar’s fate, and also to reconsider including this important historical site as part of the Chinese portion of the Silk Road nominated for World Heritage Site status.

In addition, we respectfully urge the World Heritage Convention to try to persuade the Chinese authorities to heed the Xinjiang Construction Department’s suggestions to either preserve Kashgar or conduct salvage archaeology to mitigate the destruction. For example: has a detailed photographic survey or documentation of Old Kashgar been conducted so that it would be possible to reconstruct the ancient quarter?

Finally, we urge the Chinese government to consider conducting a serious evaluation of the cultural and historical importance of what is left of Old Kashgar, utilizing professional archaeologists in the area and volunteer experts who, we are convinced, will consult if given the opportunity. Not doing so would violate the spirit and letter of the World Heritage Convention.

In so many other contexts, the Chinese government has shown it knows the country’s past belongs to all the Chinese people and indeed all the people of the world. It is important that the material remains of China’s long and illustrious past be protected, conserved, and studied so that the world might know of its great contributions to human society. Destroying the ancient portions of Kashgar without first undertaking a comprehensive photographic survey and salvage archaeology will damage China’s reputation for scholarship and result in the loss of an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of China’s role in the history of Central Asia. It is for these reasons that we voice our very grave concerns about the destruction of Old Kashgar.


Dr. Claire Alix, Research Associate, Alaska Quaternary Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Dr. Graeme Barker, Director, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

Joyce Clark, Board member of Heritage Watch

Lawrence S. Coben, Executive Director, Sustainable Preservation Initiative

Dr. Clemency Coggins, Professor of Archaeology and of Art History, Boston University

Dr. Margaret Conkey, President, The Society for American Archaeology

Dr. Laura Flusche, Assistant Academic Dean, University of Dallas

Dr. Donny George, Stony Brook University, former Director of the Iraq Museum

Cindy Ho, President, SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

Dr. David Koester, Director of Global Studies and Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Dr. Richard M. Leventhal, Cultural Heritage Center at Penn, University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Tod A. Marder, Professor II, Department of Art History, Director, Certificate Program in Historic Preservation, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Susan McCabe, President, Society for Asian Art

Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, Director, Heritage Watch

Dr. Richard M. Pettigrew, President and Executive Director, Archaeological Legacy Institute

Professor Lord Colin Renfrew, Senior Fellow, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

Dr. C. Brian Rose, President, Archaeological Institute of America

Dr. Lawrence Rothfield, former Director, Cultural Policy Center, University of Chicago

Dr. Lucille A. Roussin, J.D.

Dr. Donald H. Sanders, President, The Institute for the Visualization of History, Inc.

Barnea Levi Selavan, Co-Director, Foundation Stone

Alim Seytoff, General Secretary, Uyghur American Association/Uyghur Human Rights Project, Representative for the World Uyghur Congress and the International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation

Dr. Charles Stanish, Director, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA

Dr. Gil J. Stein, Director, the Oriental Institute and Professor, University of Chicago

Nadia Tarzi, Executive Director Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology

About Claire Alix
Archaeologist Claire Alix’s area of expertise is ethnoarchaeology of wood use in the Arctic, past and present Inuit wood technology, driftwood transport and circulation, archaeological wood remains, wood and charcoal identification, tree-ring research. Her primary field research is in Alaska, Bering Strait and the Canadian Arctic.

About the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research exists to further research by Cambridge archaeologists and their collaborators into all aspects of the human past, across time and space. It supports archaeological fieldwork, archaeological science, material culture studies, and archaeological theory in an interdisciplinary framework. Learn more at

About Sustainable Preservation Initiative
Sustainable Preservation Initiative seeks to preserve the world’s cultural heritage by providing sustainable economic opportunities to local communities. Learn more at

About Clemency Coggins
Clemency Coggins has worked on problems of Cultural Property preservation and law since 1968. She served on the U.S. committee involved in drafting the 1970 UNESCO convention, and worked many years for the U.S. ratification and implementation of the Convention. She also served on the US Cultural Property Advisory committee for its first decade.

About the Society for American Archaeology
The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is an international organization dedicated to the research, interpretation, and protection of the archaeological heritage of the Americas. With more than 7,000 members, the society represents professional, student, and avocational archaeologists working in a variety of settings including government agencies, colleges and universities, museums, and the private sector. Learn more at

About Laura Flusche
Laura Flusche, Etruscan art historian and archaeologist, is President of the Institute for Design and Culture in Rome.

About Donny George
Donny George served as Director General of the Iraqi Museums and Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and, as one of the world’s foremost experts in ancient Mesopotamian culture, has played a central role in the recovery of some of humanity’s most important antiquities following the looting of the Baghdad Museum.

About SAFE
SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving cultural heritage worldwide. Its mission is to raise public awareness about the irreversible damage that results from looting, smuggling and trading illicit antiquities. Learn more at

About Penn Cultural Heritage Center
The Penn Cultural Heritage Center is dedicated to expanding scholarly and public awareness, discussion and debate about complex issues surrounding the world’s endangered cultural heritage. Learn more at

About Tod Marder
Tod Marder’s principal research interest is in the field of Roman baroque architecture in general, and the art and architecture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in specific. He is Co-Director of Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies (CHAPS) at Rutgers University.

About the Society for Asian Art
The Society for Asian Art is a non-profit organization working in conjunction with the Asian Art Museum of San Francsico – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Arts and Culture. Its main function is to provide education relating to the arts and culture of Asia. Learn more at

About Heritage Watch
Heritage Watch is a non-profit organization working to preserve the world’s cultural heritage with a focus on Southeast Asia. Its mission is to educate people about the value of the world’s heritage resources. Learn more at

About Archaeological Legacy Institute
Archaeological Legacy Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s cultural heritage and to telling the human story to people everywhere through media and the Internet. Learn more and experience our media programming at

About Colin Renfrew
Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn received his PhD from University of Cambridge. He was appointed Director of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and has been a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for England, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, the Ancient Monuments and Advisory Committee of the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and the Managing Council for the British School at Athens.

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Lucille A. Roussin is the founder and director of the Holocaust Restitution Claims Practicum at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. She was Deputy Research Director of the Art and Cultural Property Team of the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets and was an associate in the Art and International Law Practice Group at Herrick, Feinstein LLP in New York City.

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“Cultural vandalism”: The destruction of ancient Kashgar

The Chinese government has begun its plan to raze the old oasis city of Kashgar to the ground. According to news reports, two-thirds of this old city has already been bulldozed. Over the next few years, 85% of Kashgar will be demolished.

Kashgar, “virtually untouched by modern society,” is an important oasis city strategically located on the ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Architect and historian George Michell described Kashgar as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” The Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group, predating the advent of Islam, are one of China’s largest ethnic minorities.

Because Kashgar is a city that lies in the heart of Central Asia, it was one of the most important cities along the northern route of ancient Silk Road. As much influenced by European, Islamic, and Persian cultures as Chinese, the city has been known to exist in this area since the Han Dynasty (ca. 202 B.C. – 221 A.D.). Since that time, it has seen heavy traffic from people coming from Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia as they made their way from the city of Xian in the East, all the way to the western part of the Roman Empire. Today, it is a city that covers roughly 15 square kilometers, and is still an important connection point on routes between China and northern Pakistan over and around the Taklamakan Desert.

It is a city that has been occupied by dozens of cultural groups, and influenced by countless more. The rich archaeological heritage that has been left behind by hundreds of years of traders goes without saying. It is a heritage that should not be lightly dismissed, and yet it is in imminent danger of destruction.

The act of razing the city is reportedly a part of a government plan to relocate Uyghur residents from unsafe, overcrowded homes susceptible to earthquake to more modern, safer quarters. At the same time, “China supports an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks as United Nations’ World Heritage sites – a powerful draw for tourists, and a major incentive for governments to preserve historic areas. But Kashgar is missing from the list of proposed sites.” Officials also spoke of plans to turn what remains of Kashgar into a tourist attraction.

“Here, Uighur culture is attached to those raw earth buildings. If they are torn down, the affiliated culture will be destroyed.” Said Wu Dianting, a professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal University’s School of Geography, who did field research in Kashgar last year. Others have called this “cultural vandalism” “stupid” and “cruel”. According to Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, at a seminar in 2007 to assess the urban plan for the historical preservation of Kashgar experts made three recommendations: a. The urban plan should focus more on how to preserve the old town; b. The urban plan should further study the history of the old town, in relationship to its rich culture; c. The urban plan should further study how to protect both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

SAFE joins Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center in an appeal to the Chinese government to publicize its plan for protecting historic Kashgar and its cultural heritage. It would help the general public to know what is going to be done not only to protect citizens, but also to preserve Kashgar’s the rich cultural heritage and archaeological record that has yet to be fully explored.

The demolition of the Old City is a completion of a project that was started years ago. At this point, asking for the demolition to stop might be an action taken too late, but it is not too late to ask that more care be taken in preserving what is left of Kashgar’s cultural patrimony. It is not too late to question whether a more sensitive approach can be taken. It is not too late to demand that a plan for preservation and protection be made available to the international community. After all, success was achieved in China’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States earlier this year; it is not too much to ask that China honor this achievement by doing everything it can to ensure that Old Kashgar, a beacon of Central Asian immovable cultural property, does not disappear.

(Photo: Shiho Fukada for The New York Times)