Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"The Chinese Question"

James Cuno raises some key questions about antiquities from China in Who Owns Antiquity? (Princeton UP, 2008). He draws attention to the way that the China Cultural Relics Recovery Program has been seeking to buy up Chinese objects that come on the market so that they can be returned "home".

He describes the complex relationship between the Poly Art Museum, the Poly International Auction Co., Ltd., the China Poly Group Corporation, and Poly Technologies, Inc. He continues:
The Poly Group and its Art Museum are aggressively seeking to purchase—and the Poly International Auction Co., Ltd., is trying to sell—the very kind of material that the Chinese government is requesting the U.S. government to ban. (p. 105)
Details of the request from China are posted on the U.S. State Department website. The nature of the problem is outlined with a number of specific examples and this gives a flavour:
This huge demand for Chinese cultural artifacts has caused serious damage to ancient tombs and ancient sites. Gangs of criminals have been identified with their own networks of pillage, transportation, smuggling and sales abroad. The Chinese government has devoted many resources to stopping the pillage and smuggling, but many ancient sites, tombs, stone statuary, and temples are scattered throughout the undeveloped countryside where protection is difficult. For example, from March to August, 1988 a tomb-robbing gang in Hunan Province pillaged over 600 tombs in the region. In 1996, an investigation in Fengcheng City of Jiangxi Province discovered that 187 people participated in the pillage of over 199 tombs. Some of the artifacts had already been smuggled abroad. In Chifeng City of Inner Mongolia, statistics show that in the past 20 years over 6,000 ancient sites have been looted. And in recent years, stone statuary kept in Buddhist temples of monasteries and monuments in the countryside have become desirable to the art market. Over 500 stone statues have been reported looted.
The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has details of the request on its website along with supporting material and links.

Cuno attacks the AIA for not acknowledging the link between the Poly Group and its "extensive history in dealing arms" (p. 104). He specifically cites Spencer P.M. Harrington' s article, "China Buys Back its Past", in Archaeology magazine (May 11, 2000). There Harrington is said by Cuno to describe the Poly Group "simply" as "a Beijing-based state-owned corporation". Actually, if Cuno had read on, the next paragraph stated:
The Poly Group, which until last year was owned by the People's Liberation Army and was known as an arms dealer, has more recently opened a small museum in the capital dedicated to ancient bronzes.
Cuno only weakens his cause by such careless citations that seek to attack the AIA.

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