Antiques pour out of mainland China

January 13, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Correspondent

HONG KONG -- When Chinese customs officials opened 35 crates bound for Hong Kong earlier this month, they saw a cache of treasure worth far more than the drugs that they thought they had found.

Carelessly packed in the wooden boxes was a museum's worth of Chinese artifacts: incense burners, 92 rare silk paintings, 1,000 pieces of jade, even a dozen dinosaur eggs.

Authorities proudly chalked up a victory for law and order -- but hardly dented the trade in smuggled Chinese antiques, a multibillion-dollar business stripping China of thousands of valuable artifacts each year.

The damage can best be seen during a stroll along Hong Kong's Hollywood Road, where one might conclude that China is conducting a fire sale of its cultural heritage. Displayed behind the glass windows of reputable art dealers are enough antiques and archaeological finds for several blockbuster exhibitions.

Here, a Ming vase for $100. A few doors down, 2,000-year-old terra-cotta burial figures from the Han dynasty for $25 each. A transcendentally smiling Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, for $10,000.

All recently came from China, despite its ban on the export of any cultural objects more than 100 years old.

The abundance of smuggled goods is the result of anachronistic laws in Hong Kong that make it perfectly legal to sell Chinese antiquities even when they are known to be stolen. The smuggling is the result, too, of the social and moral breakdown of rural China, where there is wholesale pillaging of burial vaults and archaeological sites.

"Cultural goods are like natural resources," said Li Bocheng, a professor of archaeology at Beijing University. "They can't be replenished. China can't afford to continue to suffer such damage."

But the supply just now seems inexhaustible. A building boom in the Chinese countryside is helping to uncover antiquities every day: at least 40,000 burial vaults have been pillaged over the past three years, specialists say.

Only a small number of the grave robberies involve first-rate antiquities, but the thefts highlight a rural lawlessness.

In the past, it would have been harder for peasants to bring themselves to rob tombs because ancestor worship was a glue holding Chinese society together. Now, with the old moral order crumbling and with nothing to take its place, pillaging the past carries little stigma.

But other robberies are the work of dedicated criminals.

Professor Li, for example, remembers a site in Shaanxi province where he used to take his archaeology students. When he last went there, the grave had been freshly plundered, with many wall carvings crudely chiseled off.

Another robbery emptied a grave dating to the Jin Kingdom, dated to the ninth century B.C., and included the loss of ceremonial food containers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Professor Li said he saw the goods on sale in Tokyo, in a back room of a prominent antiques dealer.

"We could have studied these objects and learned a lot about the Jin," Dr. Li said, "but now they're gone for good, probably in someone's study."

Some items make their way to the United States and Western Europe. Dr. Li said artwork stolen from a tomb in Gansu province turned up in a New York gallery.

Not all collecting is illegal. Some art was taken out of China before the Communist Party took over in 1949 and outlawed the sale of antiquities. Some antiques are also sold through state stores -- but typically pieces that are less than 100 years old.

"Collecting can stimulate an interest in art," said Dr. Li. "But greed sometimes outweighs a real interest, and then people don't question where the work comes from."

Many of the sales wouldn't be possible if Hong Kong didn't play the role of willing accomplice.

"It may seem strange, but the law here is that selling [stolen] antiques is legal," said Vincent Y. K. Poon, the supervisor of all border agents working for Hong Kong's Customs and Excise Department. "You can't bring in stolen goods, but once they're here they can be sold."

Mr. Poon said the border police have begun cooperating with Chinese authorities and are now confiscating antiques at the border.

But with 23,000 vehicles crossings between Hong Kong and China each day, authorities are clearly overmatched: In 1994, Mr. Poon's officers arrested four people smuggling antiques. In 1993, they arrested three.

Mr. Poon and others suggest that the smuggling will decrease dramatically after July 1, 1997, when the colony is handed back to China after 156 years of British rule. Officials in Beijing say that the new government almost certainly will make it illegal for anyone in Hong Kong to sell Chinese antiques.

But for now, a living room's worth of priceless objects can be had on Hollywood Road for a few thousand dollars.

"You can have these eight Ming burial figures for $1,000," said Shirley Tsang, who runs Lee Hing antiques store on Hollywood Road.

How does one know the art is really from the Ming dynasty, which lasted from the 14th to 17th century?

"It's certified by the Hong Kong Antiques Association," Ms. Tsang said. "You can't go wrong."

The association does certify the Chinese antiques as a service to tourists. Buyers don't have to worry that they're buying fakes; they only have to grapple with the ethics.

"Maybe foreigners can raise their moral level and not buy stolen products," said Dr. Li. "If people didn't buy them, the robberies wouldn't take place -- or at least not as much would be robbed."

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