Wednesday, December 30, 2009

China Loses Thousands of Historic Sites

Archaeologists often claim that collecting is the driving force behind looting. I would instead suggest that looting is far more likely to be a byproduct of development. When roads or dams are built, unofficial "salvage archaeology' often takes place, which in fact may save some of the artifacts (if not their context) from destruction.

In China, this is certainly the case. According to a recent article, some 30,000 items on a 1982 list have vanished, in large part due to China's aggressive development. See

Some experts think the problem is even greater than official surveys suggest. The article quotes He Shuzhong, of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, as stating,

The last 20 years have been the worst time for cultural heritage site protection with the rapid development," he said. "It is even worse than in the Cultural Revolution – then, most damage was to movable items, but not to ancient tombs or buildings or old towns. For example, many ancient tombs have been robbed and in the [redevelopment] of old towns many old buildings have been demolished. Beijing used to have 25 protection areas and I believe only half of them are still well protected now.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critters as Cultural Property: Panda Cub to be Repatriated to China in Early 2010

Washington D.C.'s beloved panda cub, Tai Shan, may have been born in the USA, but under a contract, he belongs to China, and he will be going home to a land he has never seen sometime early in 2010. See

In the old days, Communist China gave pandas to zoos around the world as diplomatic gifts. Now, in capitalist-Communist China, cash is king and they are rented for substantial amounts of money. After the Smithsonian zoo's original gifted panda pair died of old age, the beloved pandas could only be replaced with rentals at the cost of some $25 million. See

One of the other downsides of this arrangement is that when Tai Shan was born, the Smithsonian had to pay the Chinese $600,000, but the Smithsonian did not receive any rights to keep him. Hence, Tai Shan is being repatriated. And if a new deal is not worked out, his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will be following him home as the Smithsonian's 10 year lease expires soon.

All the rental money the Chinese receive in excess of expenses is supposed to go to preserving panda habitat, but these fees have become so high that complaints of "panda profiteering" have become increasingly common.

So while their persona remains cute and cuddly in the eyes of the public, zoos have started to question if a panda rental is a good investment, particularly when their high cost has required cuts elsewhere.

In any event, it seems to me that China's approach to pandas has something in common to its approach to redundant antiquities, i.e., they belong to the State as a matter of right, but they may be made available to others for a steep price.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Face of the Real Saint Nick Revealed in Time for Christmas

An Italian forensic pathologist has teamed up with a British anthropologist and new technology to reconstruct the face of the real Saint Nicholas, whose relics can be found in Bari, Italy. See

As the article explains,

Nicholas of Myra (270-346 AD) was born into a patrician family of some wealth, but as a devoted Christian he used what he had to help others (and to intervene on behalf of the falsely accused). The most famous story to come down to us is how Nicholas, hearing of the plight of a father who could not afford dowries for his three daughters, secretly left bags of gold coins at their home to provide a dowry and preserve the ladies from a likely fate as prostitutes. In one version of the story, the father lay in wait the third time the donor was to visit and thus discovered the identity of history's first secret Santa.

But Nicholas was much more than a kindly, anonymous gift-giver. As a bishop in the fourth century, he was also deeply involved in the raging disputes of the day over core issues of church doctrine that we now take for granted, or ought to.

For the story of how Saint Nick's bones arrived in Bari, Italy, from what is now present day Turkey, see:

Presumably, despite Italy's own aggressive repatriation efforts, there are no plans to send Saint Nick's relics back to Turkey anytime soon.

In any event, Cultural Property Observer wishes all its readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

AAMD Testimony on Interim Review of MOU with Italy

The AAMD has posted the testimony of its members who appeared during CPAC's interim review of the Italian MOU. See

Here are some interesting quotes.

From Maxwell Anderson, Indianapolis Museum of Art:

AAMD has long supported responsible collecting, and endorsed the early MOUs which followed the intent of the Cultural Property Implementation Act. Yet more recent MOUs have, in AAMD’s view, gone beyond the intent of the CPIA. Italy’s request covers about 13 centuries and almost all objects from that period.

It is difficult to maintain that all objects from all centuries are indispensable to a country’s protection of its cultural heritage.

The only art museums that have benefited from long-term loans are those that have recently transferred works to Italy in recognition of their dubious or falsified title. Desirable though these loans are, they do not satisfy the requirement of the MOU for long-term loans; they satisfy only the one-on-one agreements made with individual museums.

In order to increase U.S. access to Italian cultural heritage, the CPAC review must in our view specify how many long-term loans have been made, to which museums and for how long. Under the CPIA (section 306(g)(2)(B)), CPAC has the right to recommend changes to an agreement to make it more effective. We suggest that CPAC require Italy to make available, for loan, not less than a precise number of objects to not less than a precise number of accredited museums between this review and the end of the MOU.

From Michael Conforti, The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute:

The intent of Article II of the current Memorandum with Italy is to move beyond mere study of the issue of legal markets and towards creating a legal market abroad for Italian objects sold legitimately in Italy. There are several viable models for functioning legal markets: Japan as well as England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have legal markets, as does the U.S. and other countries.

I urge that these examples and others of successful legal markets be considered by the Italian government as new ways to approach cultural policy as outlined in Article II. Further I recommend that the Memorandum be made more specific. In particular, I recommend that the Committee consider amending the current Memorandum by specifying a “more than” number of export certificates be issued under Article II and at the same time urge the Italian government to adopt a true system to create a legal market, overseen by the Italian government that allows for the legal sale and purchase of archeological and other works of art. We feel this supports the underlying principles of cultural exchange and will ultimately benefit the public in the U.S. and in Italy.

From Kaywin Feldman, Minneapolis Institute of Arts:

The spirit of support and cooperation emphasized in the MOU would be much better served if American museums could acquire redundant antiquities and borrow objects for long-term loan from Italian museums. AAMD believes that the United States government should encourage developed countries, such as Italy, to make redundant antiquities available to the legitimate market as a way to curtail looting. Article II calls for the Italian government to reduce bureaucracy and facilitate the export of legitimate archaeological items sold within Italy. AAMD institutions have not experienced any expedited process or increased availability of export permits. We would encourage CPAC, therefore, to confirm that the Italian government is indeed facilitating the export of legitimate archaeological items by verifying the actual number of export permits granted for antiquities. It is certainly not in the spirit of cooperation to sell antiquities legally within Italy, but then to claim that if these works are sold in another country, they necessarily cause looting.

To further enhance cultural exchange and to conform to the MOU, Italy should make true longterm loans available to US museums. A lively program of exchange would lead to the exchange of information among researchers and increased collaboration on scholarly projects. We have found almost no evidence of long-term loans to large AAMD museums, except for the institutions that have individual agreements resulting from the transfer of works. The Italian loans made as a result of American Museums transferring objects to Italy are not truly long-term loans since these loans are not made to satisfy Article II of the MOU, but instead to satisfy an agreement with an individual museum. We would urge CPAC to ask the Italian government to provide precise information on how many long-term loans have been made outside of those made to museums transferring material and for how long such loans were made. Longterm loans to museums often run as long as 20-40 years in order to give several generations of scholars and audience the opportunity to study and truly learn from the works on view. Needless to say, American art museums are willing to work with the Italian government to facilitate such loans.

From Gary Vikan, Walters Art Museum:

I served on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, from 2001 to 2003. My first meeting addressed a request from Bolivia. As we got deeply into the ethnographic material of relatively recent date and low monetary value whose movement into the United States would be (and in fact was) interdicted by this expansive agreement, I recalled my days in Romania in 1974-75 as an IREX Fellow, during the time of the dictator Nicolae Ceau┼čescu. Foreigners, like me, could visit the antiquariat shops of Bucharest, but objects 100 years old or older, no matter how culturally insignificant, were displayed in a restricted area, to which we could not gain access. As I sat there considering Bolivia’s request, it occurred to me that the movement of cultural material across borders was like the movement of people, and of ideas – since artifacts are the bearers of ideas. For Ceau┼čescu and his kind, both were forbidden. And I thought: what if all Russian music were confined to Russia, all French painting to France, all English literature to England, and all American movies to the United States?

In 2003, the Walters Art Museum, in cooperation with the State Department, hosted a “convening” of regional academics and museum professionals with a group of their Italian counterparts. The intent was to explore practical ways to realize the laudable outcomes articulated in the Italian MOU; and specifically, institutional collaborations and long-term loans. There was a warm and enthusiastic mood in the room, and an eagerness shared by all to move forward. But at every turn, the dreaded word: BUREACRACY. Along the way, though, the conversation took an interesting turn, as we together began to explore the distinction between owning and experiencing an artifact – the idea that you don’t have to own something to experience it and learn from it. The two Italians to my left described the recent enthusiasm in Rome for “car sharing.” Like-minded people would together lease a car, but each would use it only when he or she needed it. The parallel was obvious to us all.

But sadly, in the six years since that convening our high hopes for collaborations and long-term loans have not been realized. Indeed, in a recent AAMD survey, few museums reported any long-terms loans from Italy; moreover, no museum reported any effort on the part of the Italians to engage in joint projects, excavations or studies. There were, however, a few prominent exceptions in the survey; namely, those American museums that have recently transferred works to Italy and are now enjoying the benefit of long-term Italian loans in return. Clearly, there is a mechanism in place – outside the boundaries of the current MOU – to make that happen, provided that there is the will to make it happen. So now, isn’t the time for that mechanism and that will to be expanded from those few museums to the vast majority of American museums who have not, and almost certainly never will, transfer works to Italy? This is especially important for museums in regions of the United States, mostly west of the Mississippi, where population migration and growth have taken place on a vast scale since the era of the licit antiquities trade and partage.

What do we recommend? We urge that what has happened recently for a few in the future become commonplace for many; that long-term loans of archaeological material from Italy to American museums become routine. How will this dream become reality? We believe that this will happen only if we agree on real goals and commit ourselves, on both sides of the Atlantic, to rigorous oversight. Toward that end, we urge members of this Committee to explore with the CPAC staff the Memorandum of Understanding drafted in 2000 between the United States and El Salvador. Article II of that document has a much higher degree of specificity than does Article II of the current MOU with Italy, including real, measurable outcomes. It can and should provide a model going forward, holding us collectively accountable for the realization of our shared goals. And finally, we strongly urge that this Interim Review be made part of the public record, available to all, to endorse or criticize.

Monday, December 21, 2009

PRC Mints Silver Coin Celebrating Ancient Coin Collecting

The PRC has issued a silver 10 Yuan coin to commemorate the 14th Beijing International Coin Exhibition. See The new issue depicts ancient coin designs from the Han Dynasty and the Sassanian Empire. (The Sassanian Empire was centered in today's Iran, but its coins also circulated in Central Asia, including what is today part of China. The modern Chinese coin appears to depict the portrait of Ardashir I, the dynasty's founder, from a silver dinar.)

The decision to issue such a coin should not be all that surprising. In the last decade or so, collecting ancient coins has become very popular within China. Just like in the United States and Europe, the vast majority the coins available to Chinese collectors are completely unprovenanced. The difference, of course, is what types of coins are collected. Chinese mainly purchase ancient Chinese coins because they want to collect, preserve, and display artifacts from their own culture. In contrast, for now at least, there are only a relatively few Chinese who collect ancient Western coins (see Meadows, Andrew R., and Richard W.C. Kan. 2004. History Re-stored: Ancient Greek Coins from the Zhuyuetang Collection. Hong Kong: Zhuyuetang Limited.).

In the United States, the converse is true. Relatively few Americans collect ancient Chinese coins. In contrast, many Americans (mostly of European decent) collect ancient Greek and Roman coins, particularly those struck in what is now Italy. Again, it is often because they identify these coins with their own cultural backgrounds.

What is another difference? Well, through the efforts of our own U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the AIA (see and and ) unprovenanced ancient Chinese or Cypriot coins cannot be legally imported into the United States without the fear they will be seized, and the AIA is actively working to extend this ban to the heart of the ancient coin market in the United States, Greek and Roman coins from Italy. See

So, while Chinese and Cypriot collectors continue to be able to enjoy adding unprovenanced ancient coins imported for their collections, our State Department has bowed to the narrow interests of foreign cultural bureaucracies and the AIA to preclude Americans from enjoying what these foreigners can do.

Perhaps, if the AIA gets its wish and the U.S. ultimately extends import restrictions to ancient Greek and Roman coins struck in Italy, Chinese collectors and dealers will take advantage of the situation just as they have with newly restricted (for American collectors) Chinese artifacts. See and

Will the PRC coin commemorating the 20th Beijing International Coin Exhibition depict an ancient Chinese coin along with a Roman Denarius or a Syracusian Tetradrachm? If current trends continue, perhaps so.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

US Army Shores Up Ancient Monestary

The U.S. Military is working to shore up the ruins of an ancient monastery in Iraq. See

Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime treated this archaeological treasure poorly, placing the site within the boundaries of a military compound. This is not surprising. Saddam did not identify with early Christian monks. Rather, he sought to associate his regime with the glories of early Mesopotamia and the later military successes of Saladin, Islam's warrior against the Crusaders.

When the Americans took over the facility, they also used the Monastery ruins for military purposes, but before they pack up and depart, they hope to leave the Monastery in a better condition than they found it.

Archaeologists have been harshly critical of the U.S. Military, unfairly in my opinion and that of others. See, e.g., and

Yet, American archaeologists have not advocated for this site, and also seem far more interested in the fate of early Mesopotamian and Islamic sites, than in ones related to Iraq's early Christian or Jewish heritage.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

China Hunts for Treasures in US Museums

The New York Times reports that a "Chinese Treasure Hunting Team" has descended on American Museums looking for stolen art. See

China had previously announced this high profile effort to catalogue and repatriate artifacts from the Old Summer Palace as the 150th anniversary of its destruction approaches. See

The nationalistic impulses behind the project should be clear:

Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties.

But the quest, fueled by national pride, has been quixotic, provoking fear at institutions overseas but in the end amounting to little more than a public relations show aimed at audiences back home.


Stoked by populist sentiment but carefully managed by the Communist Party, the drive to reclaim lost cultural property has so far been halting. While officials privately acknowledge there is scant legal basis for repatriation, their public statements suggest that they would use lawsuits, diplomatic pressure and shame to bring home looted objects — not unlike Italy, Greece and Egypt, which have sought, with some success, to recover antiquities in European and American museums.

The United States scouting tour — visits to England, France and Japan will come early next year — quickly turned into a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company. As for the eight-member delegation, a closer look revealed that most either were employed by the Chinese media or were from the palace museum’s propaganda department.

American archaeologists have been broadly supportive of China's efforts to repatriate artifacts. However, this article again suggests the motivations for such efforts have very little to do with scholarship or the preservation of artifacts and their context:

Mr. Liu, the researcher who was part of the delegation, seemed to admit as much, complaining that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembled little more than a military barracks. “To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken,” he said.

“Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

President Obama Nominates Judith Ann Stewart Stock to ECA Post

President Obama has nominated Judith Ann Stewart Stock to be Assistant Secretary of State (Educational and Cultural Affairs). See

Ms. Stock will presumably be the decision maker for the upcoming renewal of the Italian MOU. See

She will also hopefully address concerns about the transparency and accountability of ECA's process of imposing import restrictions on cultural goods. See

Ms. Stock currently serves as Vice President of Institutional Affairs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. See

Sunday, December 13, 2009

China Art Law Newsletter Debutes

The term "old China hand" dates from the early 20th c. According to A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, (Macmillan, 1989), this term refers to "One who has spent many years in China in the commercial or civil service, or as a missionary." When this term was coined, the Chinese Empire was in steep decline and China's people were about to face decades of war and revolutionary upheaval.

Now in the early 21st c., China has re-emerged as a world power politically, economically, militarily, and in the arts. We are lucky then that Nancy Murphy, who certainly is not that old herself, but who nonetheless qualifies as "an old China hand" when it comes to arts issues, has decided to share some of her extensive knowledge with us in the new "China Art Law Newsletter." It can be found at

"Cultural Property Observer" wishes "China Art Law Newsletter" much success in the coming [Western] New Year and beyond.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Differing Perceptions of Italy's Premier Coin Display

During my own CPAC presentation on behalf of two numismatic trade associations, I questioned the Italian State's commitment to the study, preservation and display of the ancient coins in its care. See

Now, as reported by archaeological blogger, David Gill, AIA Vice-President Sebastian Heath has taken issue with this view. See

Specifically, Dr. Heath, states,

Another voice heard at the CPAC meeting was that of ancient coin collectors and dealers. Like many AIA members, one of the areas in which I’ve published scholarly articles is ancient numismatics so the protection of coins is of great interest to me. Archaeologists are members of the numismatic community, and it is important that our voice is heard. Speaking for coin dealers, Peter Tompa, who represented both the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild and who has also released a summary of his written submission, suggested that Italian museums are not good stewards of their numismatic collections and that Italian archaeologists do a poor job publishing excavated coins. My experience suggests that neither is the case. The Palazzo Massimo in Rome has a superb numismatic display that features excavated material, including hoard finds, to trace the rise and use of coinage from the Republican period onwards. The website reports the discovery of coins and often places them in context by discussing the sites on which they were found. Unfortunately, the current MoU does not include coins as a protected category. If Italy does request that coins be included in a future agreement, it is likely that the AIA would support such a move.

Dr. Heath's view, in turn, has prompted some comment. In particular, a collector [who would prefer to remain anonymous], had this to say in response about Italy's premier coin display:

I disagree with the word "superb". Italians are awful stewards.... I too have seen the collection of coins in the Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme. It is dusty, fingerstained, with magnifying glasses on most Roman coins that are alinged poorly, and with at least one Domitian aureus that had fallen to the bottom of the display. It is an afterthought, at best. I asked a curator (at least someone in a suit with a badge) about the collection, and he, in perfect English told me that he didn't know anything about coins. When I asked who the numismatist was at the Massimo, he didn't have a clue. One of the Nero pieces was clearly Lugdunum (with the globe at the neck of the bust), and was listed as being "from Rome"...of course, possible, but not minted there. [My Wife] and I chatted with a curator about the excellent mosaics. She was very pleasant and knowledgeable. Two days later we chanced to meet her and her boyfriend at the Nero Domus Aureus; I told her I was surprised that the coins at the Massimo were not well presented...her response: "what coins?"

I also have viewed the display myself some years back. I thought it was excellent in concept (particularly in contrast to the few, scattered displays of worn and corroded coins one often sees in regional museums). At the same time, however, I was very disappointed to also observe the effects of neglect-- particularly the broken lighting and magnifying devices. I would also note the "Fasti online" Dr. Heath describes does include coins, but fails to describe them in much detail.

Overall, while I appreciate Dr. Heath's points, I simply don't think they take into account the "situation on the ground" in Italy as a whole. The Palazzo Massimo is Italy's premier coin display. Yet, even it shows the signs of neglect. "Fastionline" may mention coins, but it is no substitute for thorough publication.

Few coins are displayed at Italian museums. Many museum collections are not published at all or are published only in part. The same deplorable situation exists at archaeological sites. Italian sites have been under professional excavation for a century, but publications of site finds are few and for many sites, years of excavation work has failed to produce any publications at all.

One also wonders about the storage conditions for coins. Mario Resca, Italy's new "Museum Czar," has spoken forthrightly about the serious underfunding facing the Italian cultural institutions. Italy is a very wealthy "G8" country. Yet, it does not even fund its major cultural sites adequately. What then of its funding for the coins in State Collections?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hawass Tut Price Tag too Dear for Aussies

Egypt's Tut Exhibit won't make it to Australia because the population of potential museum-goers "Downunder" can't support the $10 million price tag Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Government are demanding. See

Archaeologists have long claimed that market nations should restrict imports of cultural goods in favor of promoting long term loans of artifacts to museums, but Egypt has extacted top dollar for such displays.

Luckily, the Austrians have come to the Australian's rescue with their own exhibit of Egyptian art from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. By contrast, this exhibit cost the Australian Museum about $1.5 million.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

State Department "Town Hall Meeting" on Holocaust Era Art Issues

The Department of State's Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues is calling a Town Hall Meeting January 7, 2010 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Department to get the views of interested individuals and organizations on the establishment of a U.S. commission on cultural materials displaced during World War II. The meeting will also discuss the June 30, 2009 Terezin Declaration, the text of which is at http://

For more, see

Monday, December 7, 2009

Knox Verdict Raises Further Questions About Italian Justice

The Amanda Knox verdict has raised serious questions about the quality of Italian justice. See

Yet, Marion True has been in the dock for far longer than Amanda Knox and True's alleged crimes are nowhere near as serious as those for which Ms. Knox has been found guilty.

With every passing month, suspicions that True's trial is all for "show" can only increase. Already, a prominent Italian-American publication has called for her to be freed. See

Hopefully, soon the Italians themselves will realize their prosecution of Ms. True has turned into a persecution in the eyes of many.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Parallels Between Climatologists and Archaeologists?

The release of hacked e-mails between climatologists has raised some serious questions about how the powers that be in that discipline have approached the debate about climate change. See

Having spent over 10 years interacting with members of the archaeological community over cultural property issues, I personally feel strong parallels exist between how leaders in both groups have approached the issues. In my opinion, archaeologists need to become far more cognizant of the "peril of trying to spin science" and, with it, supporting the suppression of information adverse to a preconceived position. Climatologists certainly have had to confront these issues because of this scandal-- even if at least some of their number appear to be more interested in tracking down the hackers than in reconsidering their methods.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

South American Sisto Case?

The Sun Sentinel reports that the FBI has repatriated Pre-Columbian artifacts found in the home of a deceased Florida businessman to Peru and Ecuador. See,0,3969102.story

A retirement home manager found the collection in the man's home when she was preparing the property for resale. She called in the FBI "after searching the Internet" and determining that the objects "were illegal to possess."

The businessman apparently had no heirs (or perhaps no one looked very hard to find them) so there was no one with an interest in asking if the retirement home manager was "jumping to a conclusion."

The FBI and Florida International University apparently were not interested in anything other than identifying which cultures produced the objects so they could be repatriated to the governments of the modern nation states that occupy the land that produced them.

This incident reminds me of the recent Sisto case and some of the the issues that raised. For more, see

I also am also highly dubious of the claim of the FBI agent in the video that suggests that these artifacts will be put on display in Peru and Ecuador. Both countries have large stashes of similar artifacts in storage. The public typically never sees such artifacts, and, indeed, they may be subject to deterioration or theft.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Treasures Reclaimed: The Economist Reports on Chinese Repatriaton Efforts

The Economist Magazine has reported on China's efforts to repatriate art from abroad. See

As the Magazine notes, far more Chinese artifacts are now being repatriated from abroad than are leaving China:

Collecting Chinese fine art and ceramics was all the rage in the West in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century. Heavy buying by treasure-hunters, as well as looting of imperial works by the Germans, Dutch, French and British, brought huge quantities of Chinese fine art into Western collections. But in the past decade the number of European and American buyers has dwindled.


From 1949, when the Communist Party defeated the Nationalists, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966, owning, inheriting or exchanging pre-communist works of art was banned in China. Thanks to shifts in policy that started under Deng Xiaoping and continued after him, the Chinese are now catching up in a big way, following on from the Japanese buyers who dominated the market in the 1970s and the Taiwanese and Hong Kong collectors who started buying seriously in the 1990s.

The mainland Chinese are beginning to dominate the salerooms. Prevented for so long from celebrating the achievements of their forebears, they have a thirst for their own history, and especially for anything that connects modern China with the glories of its imperial past. The newly wealthy-such as Xu Qiming, China's biggest exporter of eels from the port city of Ningbo; Lu Hanzhen, an industrialist from Zhejiang province who became rich by selling motorcycles and nylon fabric for car tyres; or indeed any businessman or civil servant who benefited from the recent flurry of privatisations-can afford to pay, and pay they will.

Nor are these buyers to be found only in the old political and commercial strongholds of Beijing and Shanghai. There are probably seven Chinese cities with populations of more than 5m, and demand for fine art is as strong in Guangdong, adjacent to Hong Kong, as it is in Sichuan in the west or in more far-flung areas. “It's what I call 'natural repatriation',” says Patti Wong, who as chairman of Sotheby's Asia has been watching the Chinese buying wave grow for a decade, "and it is happening everywhere."

Having made their money quickly, Chinese buyers are in a hurry to build their collections fast and are willing to pay a premium to achieve that. “Arriving at the buffet party a little too late,” says Mr Chow, "they are more aggressive than Europeans or Americans." Even though economic growth in China this year may be only 8%, after 9% last year, it is still far higher than in most of the rest of the world. China may be one of the few places where the number of dollar billionaires has actually increased in the past year, from 101 to 130, according to the recently published Hurun Rich List.


Dealers and auctioneers familiar with the Chinese market estimate that there are around 150 collectors in Hong Kong and Taiwan who spend at least $1m a year each on Chinese works of art, and that their number is relatively stable. The mainland has another 150 or so buyers in that category, and the numbers there are growing rapidly. More Chinese treasures are now sold at auction in Hong Kong than in New York, London and Paris. Whereas back in 2004 Sotheby's did $10m-worth of business with 70 clients from the mainland in its spring and autumn sales in Hong Kong, the figure for the same sales this year is seven times higher and its list of mainland Chinese buyers has grown to 195. Many more bid through established dealers in Hong Kong. “Mainland China has clearly become our main land,” says Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby's Asia.


In 1886 Paul Durand-Ruel, a Paris dealer, packed his bags with 300 Impressionist paintings-including piles of Renoirs, Pissarros and Sisleys-to take to America. He was closely followed by a Briton, Joseph (later Lord) Duveen, who could see, like Durand-Ruel, that “Europe had the art and America had the money.”

Just as European Old Master and Impressionist paintings then began to move inexorably westwards across the Atlantic, now Chinese fine art and ceramics from America, Britain, France and the Netherlands are moving eastwards back to China. Not since the heyday of Duveen's and Durand-Ruel's exports to America has there been such vigorous redirecting of cultural artefacts from one part of the world to another as European and American collections are broken up and sold off to the newly wealthy Chinese. The traffic is almost all one way.

And that is not all. In addition to "repatriation by purchase," China is also aggressively pressing for ever more extensive legal restrictions on the trade of ancient Chinese artifacts abroad:

In addition, China has become increasingly vocal about restricting the trade in its treasures. After nearly five years of negotiation the Bush administration in its final days at last agreed to prohibit the import of a wide range of antiquities into America. The agreement was not as strong as China would have liked, and in recent weeks its government has said that it will tighten up on the movement of cultural relics out of the country. Its plan is to ban the export of anything made before 1911, the end of the Qing dynasty. No matter that China is now a member of the World Trade Organisation, it still seems to be uncomfortable with free trade-except when it suits it.

After all reading this, one wonders if the archaeologists that spoke so eloquently on behalf of China's request for import restrictions before CPAC should feel duped. Were the restrictions really about "protecting the archaeological record" as they claimed, or are they in fact designed to help ensure that ancient Chinese art stays out of the hands of "foreigners," and, in particular, American citizens? And further in this regard, given the prospect for even more extensive Chinese export controls, what of China's promise under the MOU that

The Government of the People’s Republic of China shall continue to license the sale and export of certain antiquities as provided by law and will explore ways to make more of these objects available licitly.