The FBI on Thursday signed an agreement with China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration for repatriating 361 Chinese cultural relics that had been held by a U.S. collector illegally.
It is the third and so far the biggest-scale return of lost cultural relics from the United States to China since 2009, when the two countries signed an agreement on restricting the import of Chinese cultural relics into the U.S.
These artifacts were part of a vast collection seized from the Indiana property of Don Miller, a Christian missionary and engineer. Miller died at age 91 in 2015, nearly a year after the FBI raided his home and seized about 42,000 items shipped to his home after traveling the world over the span of more than six decades. The FBI said Miller’s items were taken illegally or improperly.
Miller — called a “real-life Indiana Jones” in reference to the Harrison Ford character in the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – had a stash of stolen antiques, including Chinese jewelry from 500 B.C. and a Ming Dynasty vase. In 2014, The Indianapolis Star, in describing the scene at Miller’s rural home, wrote that a “life-sized Chinese terra-cotta figurine sat on his front porch and, in the basement, he kept an Egyptian sarcophagus.” Before his death, Miller admitted to the FBI that he had acquired many of the items illegally, and that he had gone on unapproved archaeological digs all over the world.
The return of 361 Chinese relics is the latest successful attempt by China in bringing back cultural relics lost in other parts of the world by way of looting, illegal trade and other improper means.
The China Cultural Relics Society estimated that more than 10 million pieces of Chinese relics had been lost to Europe, America, Japan, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world since the Opium War because of wars and improper or illegal trade. According to UNESCO, about 1.64 million pieces of Chinese cultural relics are being kept in more than 200 museums in 47 countries, while about 10 times of that figure of Chinese relics are believed to be at the hands of individuals outside of China.
In the past decade, China has stepped up efforts in recovering lost cultural relics through action by the government, institutions and individuals. In 2000, Poly Art Museum in Shanghai bought the bronze sculptures of oxen, monkeys, and tiger heads, part of the sculptures depicting the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac looted by Western forces from Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, at high costs at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions. In 2003, Macao billionaire Stanley Ho bought the bronze pig head and donated it to the museum.
However, retrieving relics by way of purchase is costly and may pose a moral hazard that fuels the smuggling of cultural property.
The country can use the legal venues under The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property, and the 1995 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. However, the 1970 convention does not apply to relics stolen before 1970 and many countries have not joined the conventions.
Many Chinese cultural treasures were looted during invasions by foreign forces in the late 19th century and Japanese aggression during World War II, or were smuggled out of the country in large scale by Western adventurers in the early 20th century. It is very difficult to have them returned to their true owners as international conventions do not apply to objects stolen in those periods. Many of them were not kept in proper records before being looted or illegally traded and, except those on public display or auctions, have remained in the hands of unknown individuals, making it almost impossible to trace them.
Even if their whereabouts become known, foreign courts can prove to be unaccommodating to Chinese claimants. In December last year, a Dutch court rejected a lawsuit filed by a village committee in Fujian. The villagers believe that the mummy Buddha statue Amsterdam inhabitant Oscar van Overeem lent for an exhibition in March 2015 was the one that their village had worshipped for over 1,000 years before it was stolen from the village temple in December 1995. The court ruled the case “inadmissible” on the grounds that it is unclear whether Chinese village committees have the right to bring legal claims.
The case reminded us that China faces an arduous crusade in bringing lost relics to their country of origin. A combination of diplomatic, judicial and nongovernmental channels is needed.
China has signed bilateral agreements with at least 18 countries to fight smuggling and the illegal trafficking of cultural property. The return of the 361 artifacts from the U.S. shows a promising prospect for China to recover lost cultural property through bilateral cooperation.
(The author is head of the Shenzhen Daily News Desk.)