—Lauren Hilgers, “Tomb Raider Chronicles,” June 10, 2013

Every day, looting and plundering of priceless cultural treasures continue all over the world. The devastation of China’s cultural heritage caused by the illicit antiquities trade is perhaps among the most severe. Tomb raiders, smugglers, and citizens driven by poverty, ignorance, and especially greed ravage the world’s second largest country and destroy its most valuable non-renewable resource: China’s 7,000-year cultural history. This activity is fueled by the seemingly insatiable appetite for the exotic and beautiful at any cost— particularly in Western countries, such as the United States.

To meet this increasing demand, the illegal plundering of China’s archeological sites has reached a fevered pitch. While this complex situation calls for a wide range of complementary solutions, one effective way to stem the traffic in looted cultural material is the implementation of import restrictions. In other words: sever the chain of supply and demand.

China’s history and archeology is key to our understanding of development of human society and civilization. Most of the information about ancient Chinese history has yet to be excavated. Objects uncovered in their original contexts and properly interpreted provide insight into the way our ancestors lived, what they ate, how they farmed, how they thought, and what they did. Illegal excavations rob everyone of this knowledge.

These bilateral, government-to-government agreements have proven to be effective in curbing looting of ancient sites by making it harder for smugglers to bring looted artifacts to market in the United States. From Cambodia to Italy to Peru, they have been credited by archeologists, law enforcement, and government officials with helping to bring the problem of looting under control. An agreement with China could help greatly to curb the demolition of ancient sites to feed the antiquities trade.

Our ability to study and appreciate Chinese antiquities will be enhanced because when artifacts are properly excavated, studied, and displayed to the public, objects are no longer simply “pretty but dumb,” (Stealing History by Roger Atwood, St. Martin’s Press, 2004). What import restrictions will diminish is the incentive to loot in order to satisfy the urge to possess yet another piece of Chinese porcelain in a rich man’s home.

There is no shortage of Chinese antiquities in the U.S. museums and institutions. Currently, there are 47 museums with collections of Chinese antiquities. Between 2000 and 2004, there were 15 museum exhibitions focusing on China alone and in 2005, 30 more are planned.

The burgeoning popularity of international loan exhibitions of properly excavated antiquities shows that this is a profitable alternative —both in the monetary as well as the educational sense—for museums to pursue as the best way to bring the wonders of the past to a broad public audience instead of the continuing acquisition of objects with no provenance.

The U.S. is a leader in the market for Chinese antiquities, SAFE believes that it should lead in the efforts to protect the cultural heritage of the people they belong to: all of us.

Cast study: Bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi
Excerpt from the February 2, 2005 statement by Robert W. Bagley, Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University in support of China’s request for import restriction of certain Chinese antiquities into the U.S (read full text here).

“They have gold-inlaid inscriptions about music theory; the text is spread over the bells and continues on the wooden rack. These inscriptions are the earliest known Chinese writings about music theory. Moreover each bell is labelled with its pitch, and the bells still sound their original pitches, so the musical scale of the 5th century BC is written out for us on an instrument that can still play that scale. And the scale is a surprise: it is a chromatic scale, in other words it is exactly the same scale that we tune our pianos to today. This set of bells is by far the oldest chromatically-tuned instrument known anywhere; it is older by almost 2000 years than the earliest Western instruments tuned chromatically.”

Case study: A set of 65 bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (d. 433 BC). Height 8’ 11”, length of long arm 24’ 7”, excavated in 1979. On permanent display in the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan at Suizhou, Hubei province

A set of 65 bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (d. 433 BC). Height 8’ 11”, length of long arm 24’ 7”, excavated in 1979. On permanent display in the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan at Suizhou, Hubei province

If the bells had been looted, Professor Bagley continued,

“…nothing would survive of the orchestra but the bells, and the bells would survive only as scattered individuals, not as a tuned set.

If that had happened, what would we have lost? We would not have a date for the objects that survived; only one object in the tomb has a datable inscription, and once the other objects were separated from it, they would be undatable. Worse still, there would be no record of where the bells were found or how many were found together; we would not know what the set originally consisted of, we would not even be certain that the bells we knew of were components of a single set. Not having all the inscriptions, we would be unable to make sense of the ones we had. And we would never suspect that the set plays a chromatic scale. Instead of being the greatest discovery in the history of musical archaeology, this tomb would just have supplied some pretty bells to a few collectors.”

A small Ming dynasty-era bowl sold for $36.3 million (USD) at auction.

—Jason Chow, “The $36 Million Ming Dynasty-era Bowl.” April 8, 2014

Looted Han figurines

Looted ceramic figurines from accessory burial flanking the imperial tomb of Emperor Jing (r.156-141BCE), Western Han period, Xian, Shaanxi province.

Tomb raiders destroy one-third of China’s national treasures (May 12, 2006,

Saving Chinese Artifacts: A Slow Fight (April 1, 2006, The New York Times)

Tomb raiders at Shaanxi Province leave little for archaeologists (June 15, 2005

Relic theft from museums now a booming business (March 1, 2005, Taipei Times)

Cultural relics see high-tech crime risk (February 28, 2005, China Daily)

Tomb raiders crack 2000-year-old vault (February 10, 2005, The Australian)

Ancient artifacts under threat, government says (Dec 22, 2004, Taipei Times)

Greed and opportunity combine as China bleeds its cultural heritage (June 4, 2004, Daily Times)

220, 000 tombs in China have been invaded over the past five years (Time magazine Asia edition; Oct. 27, 2003 issue of the U.S. edition)

98% of all profits from the illicit art trade go to middlemen and dealers (Time magazine Asia edition; Oct. 27, 2003 issue of the U.S. edition)

A Xi’an gang broke into the 2,000-year-old tomb of China’s Empress Dou using dynamite, and an air blower powered by a portable generator (Oct. 20, 2003 issue of Time magazine)

The Illicit Trade in Chinese Antiquities by Melvin Soudijn and Edgar Tijhuis (July 2003 IIAS Newsletter)

Ancient tombs have been ransacked for the second time in two years (Silk Road Theft by Jarrett A. Lobell Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003, Archaeology Magazine)

Tibet’s treasures have inspired artists, authors, celebrities—and thieves (Stealing Beauty by Ron Gluckman, November, 2002, Travel and

1,500-year-old tomb murals looted from Jian (Mural Flapby Daniel Kane, Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002, Archaeology Magazine)

Chinese looters

Looters at work (Tan Changgu)

“Illicit Excavation in Contemporary China” by He Shuzhong. Originally published in Trade in Illicit Antiquities: The Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage (Brodie, Neil, Jennifer Doole, and Colin Renfrew [eds], 2001)He Shuzhong is the Founder of CHP Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Research Centre (CHP).

The Dulan County Tibetan Royal Tomb Group in Qinghai province was listed by World Monuments Watch as one of the world’s One Hundred Most Endangered Sites 2000 (Dulan Listed by World Monuments Watch by Bruce Doar, February 2000, China Archaeology and Art Digest)

The antiquities market is destroying China’s Buddhist statuary (Off With the Heads by Bruce Doar, October 28, 1999, Archaeology Magazine)

An unprecedented rash of looting is following in the wake of construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the middle reaches of China’s Yangtze River. (Plundering the Three Gorges by Spencer P.M. Harrington, May 14, 1998, Archaeology Magazine)

The Three Gorges Dam and the Looting of Archaeological Treasures by Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, International Rivers Network)

“Tomb robbers are not careful excavators. They tunnel in, generally doing a lot of damage in the process; they take the objects that are most marketable and easiest to transport; and they leave the rest—sometimes they deliberately smash what they leave behind, perhaps to increase the value of what they take.”

Robert W. Bagley, Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

Chen Dong with Ming bowl

Mr. Chen Dong from Chuzhou District Museum: “This ancient bowl was classics of Ming Dynasty.” (Tan Changgu)

Much of China’s ancient history is unknown and will remain forever lost because of illegal excavations, for example, the Chu, Liao, Jing, and the Hongshan Cultures. (“Illicit Excavation in Contemporary China” by He Shuzhong, 2001) Robbing tombs and desecrating human remains violate the Chinese traditional respect for national cultural heritage. According to He Shuzhong, until about twenty years ago most Chinese people respected their heritage and they considered an archeological site to be part of the “national cultural heritage” or the “soul of the ancestor.” During most of the 20th century there was a real sense of duty to report finds to the authorities. The lucrative gains from supplying the demand of the international illicit antiquities trade in the last 20 years have eroded this sense of national responsibility. The forgery industry prospers as a result of the high demand for Chinese antiquities. (“Fakes Flood Market” by Mark Rose, January 28, 2002, Archaeology).

Case study: Huaian City of Jiangshu Province: 300 ancient tombs illegally excavated in two months 
Source: He Shuzhong,Cultural Heritage Watch Weekly Observation “Another Kind of ‘Return’” 5/22/2001, courtesy of Tom Cremers
Huaian City of Jiangshu Province is one of the National Famous Cities of Historical and Cultural Value. There are many archeological sites in the city. However, many of them are being illegally excavated by local people. For example, because of the water conservancy construction for Huaihe River from 1999, many archeological heritage areas were found and illegally excavated very quickly. In March and April this year, more than 300 Ming and Qing Dynasty tombs in Chuzhou District of the city were destroyed by local people. Jiangshu Province is one of the richest areas in China and the heritage administration is also advanced. However, such destruction has not been stopped.

“The importance of an archaeological site depends upon the maintenance of its integrity…It is very difficult to find a site (in China) which has not been damaged in some way by illicit excavators.”

He Shuzhong, “Illicit Excavation in Contemporary China

Less than an hour after it was excavated in Donghaiyu, Shandong, China, a dealer offered to purchase a black polished earthenware pottery cup, 4600-4500 BC. The ethical owner refused.

Less than an hour after it was excavated in Donghaiyu, Shandong, China, a dealer offered to purchase a black polished earthenware pottery cup, 4600-4500 BC. The ethical owner refused. (Shandong Provincial Museum)

At Christie’s and Sotheby’s “Asia Week,” sales reached nearly $30 million with Chinese art accounting for a little more than half of the total. More merchandise valued in the tens of millions of dollars was on offer uptown at the International Asian Art Fair and at galleries around town, where some of the field’s most prominent specialists mount exhibits. (“Chinese Art Leads Buoyant Sales at Lexington Avenue” by Laura Beach)

The security chief at a museum in Chengde, China was accused in June of stealing 158 artifacts over 12 years. One, the “Buddha of Infinite Life,” fetched $295,000 at an auction. (“Stealing Beauty,” June 30, 2003/ Vol. 161 No. 25, Time Asia magazine)

“Bronze Spirit Tree” sold for $2.5 million at the International Asian Art Fair in New York (“Gansu Getaway” by Lawrence R. Sullivan, Volume 51 Number 5, September/October 1998, Archaeology)

Like an unstoppable tide, China is looming ever larger on the art scene. (“Waves of Chinese Masterpieces Storm Market” by Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune)

“…Neolithic and early Bronze Age items are especially being targeted by looters and dealers.…Eggshell cups and jades from Shandong… can be sold for as much as $10,000 a piece.”

From Dr. Anne P. Underhill’s statement presented at the State Department hearing, February 17, 2005

Case study: The painted coffin from Chifeng 
Source: He Shuzhong,Cultural Heritage Watch Weekly Observation “Another Kind of ‘Return’” 1/9/2001, courtesy of Tom Cremers

“Mausoleums of the Liao Dynasty and Their Memorial Cities” is a cultural heritage site protected at national level located in Chi Feng [Chifeng] City of Nei Mongol Province [Inner Mongolia] in North China. In May 1997, two Liao Dynasty tombs of the site were illegally plundered. At the beginning of June 1997, the illicit digging was stopped, and the two tombs were guarded by local authorities. Unfortunately, one of the two tombs was illegally excavated again in the same month, when the guards went to a town to buy food (the site is very far from town). Local experts found that a painted wooden coffin chamber, which was constructed of more than 50 pieces of painted wood, was stolen during the guards’ absence.

In March of 1998, the museum bought the painted wooden coffin chamber of Liao Dynasty from a local people of Chifeng City. The leaders of the museum were very glad because they were sure that the coffin chamber was a very rare cultural property. Research revealed that the coffin chamber collected by Liaoning Province Museum was indeed the same chamber stolen from the tomb of the cultural heritage site in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Province. The name of the person who sold the chamber had been registered on the collection card of the museum, and he was arrested by police in Chifeng.

In July of 2000, Inner Mongolia Provincial authorities received information that a painted wooden coffin chamber of Liao Dynasty, which was very similar to the stolen one, was collected by Liaoning Provincial Museum, located in Shenyang in northeast China. This museum is one of the most famous museums in China with a long history and many important collections.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection strengthen import restrictions on archeological material from China (January 14, 2014)

  • The State Administration of Cultural Heritage, on behalf of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, is making a request to the Government of the United States for assistance under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention to restrict importation of Chinese antiquities. Please read public summary for more details.
  • “Protecting relics tops priorities” by Li Jing China Daily (January 14, 2005)
  • Rich Chinese bid to buy back ‘stolen’ treasures (June 4, 2004, CulPropProtNet/MusSecNetwork)
China UNESCO poster

Poster created by China’s UNESCO office

Some organizations in China devoted to cultural heritage protection

  • Zhonggou wenwubao, the journal of the Chinese National Administration of Cultural Heritage had a special issue on the looting of the world’s cultural heritage (February 14, 2003). A follow up was published on February 21, 2003. The journal is published once a week and distributed all over China including thousands of museums, cultural institutions, universities, cultural heritage professionals, etc. It is also distributed to Sinologists all over the world.

china container ship

Case study: Container ships used to smuggle looted material

Source: He Shuzhong, Cultural Heritage Watch Weekly Observation “How Many Cultural Properties Are Illegally Exported by Container Ship?”12/25/2000, courtesy of Ton Cremer

Container ships are now the main means for illegally transporting cultural properties from China. In the face of so many large containers moving through its seaports everyday, the task of intercepting smuggled goods is indeed a difficult one for Customs authorities.

One recent example illustrates the nature of the problem: Suspicious Customs authorities in the seaport of Tianjin City seized a container,
which was declared to contain new furniture by a foreign trade company. When it was opened and inspected, it was found to contain 412 precious antiquities including wooden figures of Buddha, porcelain, stone sculptures, and other objects.

Fortunately, this shipment was stopped at the last minute. While we are grateful for the hard work of the Customs officers who managed to stop this shipment, it is clear that only a tiny percentage of international cargo containers are being searched, and an enormous number of illegally exported antiquities are making their way out of China on these container ships.

smuggling stopped by chinese customs

Looted material using container ships for illegal export was seized by customs at the last minute.

“China has a very rich cultural heritage and has been working very hard in the past decades to protect various aspects of this wonderful heritage. We know that there is still room for improvement, but our commitment is there. We appreciate highly the understanding and support SAFE has shown for China’s request for a bilateral agreement to ban illegal import of China’s cultural artifacts.”

Han Hong, Cultural Office Chinese Embassy, Washington, DC April 11, 2005

On February 17, 2005, the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) of the U. S. State Department held a public session to consider China’s request for import restrictions on certain categories of archeological artifacts into the U.S. for a period of five years.

As a party to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO 1970), China is entitled to make this request. The United States—the first major art-importing country to do so—ratified the Convention, and in 1983 passed implementing legislation: the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA, 19 USC§§ 2601-2613).

The hearing is designed to allow CPAC to hear information from the American public relating to the four determinations that CPAC considers for the request at hand.

The meeting took place in a fully packed room, standing room only. Compared to many of the CPAC public hearings on requests from other countries, this was one of the best attended, by far. Scheduled to take place between 1:00 and 3:30pm, the public session did not end until nearly 5:00pm.

The speakers

Opponents (15 speakers): auction house staff, museum curators, one private collector, lawyers representing dealers and collectors associations, and art dealers. Opponents spoke first.

Supporters (seven speakers): museum curators, a law professor, an art history professor, and three SAFE members.

They were (in order of appearance):

James Fitzpatrick: National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art , Washington, D.C.

William G. Pearlstein: Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe, NYC

Arthur Houghton: American Council for Cultural Policy, NYC

James J. Lally: J.J. Lally & Co. NYC

Michael McCullough: Sotheby’s, NYC

Joe-Hynn Yang: Sotheby’s, NYC

Nancy Murphy: WaterMoon Gallery, NYC

Carlton Rochell: Carlton Rochell Ltd . NYC

Leopold Swergold: Private Collector, Westport, CT

James Cuno: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL

Katherine Lee Reid: Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH

Emily Sano: Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA

Marc F. Wilson: Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO

Cindy Ho: SAFE

Elizabeth Gilgan: SAFE

Jennifer Makrides: SAFE

Patty Gerstenblith: DePaul University, Chicago, IL

Deborah Bekken: The Field Museum, Chicago, IL

Anne Underhill, The Field Museum, Chicago, IL

Robert Bagley, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Peter Tompa: International Association of Professional Numismatists, Washington, DC

Wayne Sayles, Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, Gainesville, MO

It had been noted in some reports that Chinese representatives were absent at the hearing, implying that the government does not care. In fact, the Chinese government was represented by a delegation of three from Beijing’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which traveled to Washington to present to CPAC in a closed-door meeting on April 1. It was headed by the Deputy Director of the General Office of Cultural Affairs, Wang Jun. The delegation was joined by an official from the Chinese Embassy in the U.S who told SAFE that it chose not to attend the public hearing because the U.S. State Department was working directly with China’s the government organization that made the request on behalf of China.

The debate

The CPAC Chairman began by asking speakers not to repeat the points already submitted in writing and to focus their five-minute presentations on the four determinations in question.

The following is a recap of the points that were made, not quotes.


1. China is unable to safeguard its cultural heritage

  • Looting in China has taken place for a long time, an import ban now would not help
  • China destroys Tibet’s cultural heritage, therefore Americans should come to the rescue (Rochell)
  • The US should deny the Chinese request to show them that they must first strengthen their own laws (Houghton)
  • It is part of China’s culture to rob tombs (Wilson)

2. The growing size of China’s internal market

  • Why should Americans be denied what the Chinese themselves can buy?  (Fitzpatrick)
  • The Chinese taste for their own antiquities has shifted from imperial porcelains to archeological material (Lally)
  • Chinese market dwarfs the U.S. market and is several (an unknown multiple) times larger than the U.S. market (Pearlstein)
  • All other markets overseas combined are not as big as the Chinese domestic market (Fitzpatrick)

3. The size of the U.S. market is not so big

  • The market for Chinese antiquities in Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Britain, France, Belgium, Thailand, exceeds the market in the United States (again by some unknown multiple) (Pearlstein)
  • U.S. purchasing of Chinese antiquities has tended to remain static (Yang and McCullough)

4. Facts about the effects of looting questioned

  • Figures in the Oct. 27, 2003 TimeAsia article “Spirited Away” by Hannah Beech, were disputed. For example, Chinese officials did not confirm the number of looted ancient tombs (220,000) mentioned in the article (Wilson)
  • U.S. museums are able to determine if pieces have been recently looted (Wilson)

5. American interests not served

  • There is an increasing propensity by CPAC to ignore U.S. interests (Houghton)
  • The job of U.S. museums will be complicated, traveling exhibits (as an alternative to museum purchases) are tough to fundraise for (Sano)
  • It is difficult to study Chinese antiquities unless they are in a museum’s permanent collection (Sano)
  • A dampening effect on cultural exchanges with China (Reid)

6. The Chinese request should not be granted

  • The scope is too broad (Yang and McCullough, Cuno)
  • The Chinese request is not consistent with values of global exchange in cultural property (Cuno)
  • McCarthy-era restrictions stopped import of Chinese antiquities into the U.S., and yet destruction raged in China under the Cultural Revolution (Lally)
  • The request does not meet the statutory standards (Fitzpatrick)
    A request of convenience–the Chinese think they can get something here that they know they cannot get anywhere else
  • It is about controlling access to what the Chinese government calls cultural heritage (Cuno)
  • This is about restricting access to cultural material. (Wilson)
  • Internal political conflict between national and provincial officials (Wilson)
  • Will not save a single chopstick (Wilson)

7. Coins

  • The proposed import restrictions would take away the collectors’ hobby (Tompa)
  • Coins do not have the same archeological value as other artifacts

1. Looting in China is severe

  • Specific examples and statistics showing destruction by illegal excavations (Ho)
  • First-hand knowledge of damage (Underhill)
  • Problem not unique to China (Ho)
  • Severe problem of looting in the U.S. (Underhill)

2. Consequences of looting 

  • Loss of irretrievable information (Ho, Bekken, Underhill, Bagley)
  • China’s size, population and long history mean there is much to lose and much to gain from what is still unexcavated (Ho)

3. China is doing what it can to stem the problem of looting 

  • Legal ramifications: arrests, jail sentences (Makrides)
  • China prohibits illegal excavations (Gerstenblith)
  • China is one of the first countries to accede to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (Gerstenblith)
  • China’s request consistent with the 1970 UNESCO Convention
  • China is party to Convention (Makrides, Gerstenblith)
  • 1982 Cultural Relic Protection Law, amended in 2002 (Gerstenblith)
    Sale of newly excavated archeological objects against Chinese law (Gerstenblith)

4. China’s efforts to protect its own cultural heritage

  • Examples of Chinese websites and newspapers and other publications devoted to cultural heritage preservation (Makrides)
  • Examples of the ways local people contribute (Makrides, Bekken, Underhill)
  • Local people are proud of their country’s heritage and appreciative of archeological fieldwork (Bekken, Underhill)
  • China has many good museums, including Tibet (Makrides)
  • China has sought to repatriate looted objects (Gerstenblith)
  • Not part of China’s culture to rob tombs (Ho)
  • The U.S. market for Chinese antiquities is enormous
  • Sales of Chinese antiquities at Sotheby’s U.S. in 2004 alone totaled $34 million (Ho)
  • 25% of the 84 archeological objects (from 6000 B.C. to 1750 A.D.) were sold for over $100,000 in 2004 at Sotheby’s New York, grossing over $7 million (Gilgan)

5. Objects sold in U.S. auctions lack archeological context

  • Of 168 objects auctioned by Sotheby’s New York in 2004 only 30 have provenance–ten since 1970 UNESCO Convention (Gilgan)
  • In 2004, none of the objects offered for auction by Sotheby’s of New York, had archeological context (Gilgan)

6. It serves the American interest

  • As the first major art-importing country to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the U.S. should lead the global effort to protect the world’s shared cultural heritage
  • Bilateral agreements work
  • It has worked for other 11 countries, why not China? (Ho)
  • International exchange of cultural materials
  • Cooperative programs between China and the U.S. have dramatically increased in recent years (Bekken, Underhill)
  • Granting the request will encourage more exchange (Ho)

Other reports about CPAC public hearing

In the Fray: This Property Claim Should Be Condemned by Ashton Hawkins and Kate Fitz Gibbon (Mar 29, 2005, Wall Street Journal)

CPAC holds public hearing by James J. Lally

China’s Request: Is the US Government on the Verge of Shutting Down the Market in Chinese Antiquities? by Laura B. Whitman (April 2005, Orientations)

US Embargo on Chinese Art, by Martin Barnes Lorber (April 2005, Asian Art)

China’s Request for Art-Import Ban Stirs Debate by Randy Kennedy (April 1, 2005, The New York Times)


Traditionally, the debate about cultural heritage preservation and the trade in antiquities has been dominated by the cognoscenti— archeologists, art historians, dealers, collectors, museum curators, etc. By representing the wider public, SAFE’s presence at CPAC is a landmark initiative.

Never before has public opinion been presented to CPAC in the form of hundreds of signatures to an online petition.

The passion and dedication of SAFE—a group of volunteers who have nothing to gain personally, professionally, or financially in this matter —can be difficult for some people to understand. For SAFE volunteers, antiquities are not mere objects to buy and sell. They form building blocks of human history. As such, their value extends far beyond what they fetch on the market. We have everything to gain by protecting this invaluable heritage from looting.


We again urge the members of CPAC to recommend granting China’s request by signing a bilateral agreement to restrict US importation of Chinese archeological objects.

Import restriction through bilateral agreements has a track record of success. Denying China’s request for assistance would be unprecedented. In the case of the 11 countries that have previously made similar requests, CPAC has recommended that assistance be given. In every case, a bilateral agreement was negotiated.

Denying China’s request because “the Chinese are unable to safeguard their cultural heritage” is akin to denying a person medical treatment who could not cure oneself. The fact is China has strict cultural property laws in place, seizes large numbers of illicit artifacts within its borders, metes out draconian punishment when offenders are convicted, and is investing significant sums to build museums in an effort to display and preserve artifacts as they are discovered.

Americans have long supported strict cultural property laws in the USA Harris poll conducted in 2000 found that 96% Americans favor laws that protect cultural heritage.

In the end, we believe that the war against the pillage of our shared cultural heritage will be won in the court of public opinion. We are encouraged by the support through our online petition, collected from all over the world in a matter of weeks.

SAFE is honored to be a part of the process that makes it possible for our voice to be heard, and we thank CPAC for this opportunity. We are also grateful for the contributions of all those who joined in our efforts with their research materials, ideas, advice, and above all, their signatures.

On January 16, 2009, China’s request was granted and the bilateral agreement.

china mou bannerThe public sessions of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) offer a unique opportunity for the public to be seen and heard about issues that could have long-lasting effects on our history and our future.

This report documents SAFE’s experiences at CPAC, with arguments on both sides as well as facts, press reports, observations, and conclusions. With this report, we hope to encourage more participation from all those who are interested in the fight against the pillage of our common heritage.

What we did

SAFE created a campaign to broadcast and support China’s request for assistance from the U.S. to preserve its irreplaceable cultural heritage. The goal was to testify at the U.S. State Department’s public hearing before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on February 17, 2005.

January 25: Given SAFE’s commitment to raise public awareness, our priority was to provide background information about the situation. This was accomplished with the help of SAFE volunteers as well as the Archaeological Institute of America, and archeologists and art historians from all over the world. In addition, we contacted officials at the Chinese Consulate in New York and the Embassy in Washington and sought advice from cultural heritage experts in Beijing, China.

SAFE distributed flyers to collect signatures to support the request.

SAFE distributed flyers to collect signatures to support the request.

January 29: We launched an online petition, inviting the public to lend their support of China’s request. Press releases in English and Chinese caught media attention.

February 4: Cindy Ho, Elizabeth Gilgan, and Jen Makrides submitted written statements to CPAC.

Feb 17: Noon. Twenty two days into the campaign, nearly 500 petitions had been collected from individuals around the world.

12:30 pm. SAFE members arrived at the State Department to present the petitions to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and deliver their testimony.

SAFE continued to gather petitions online, as the number exceeds 700.

Statements to CPAC

From SAFE:
Cindy Ho, Elizabeth Gilgan, Jen Makrides

Robert W. Bagley, Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University
Deborah A. Bekken. Adjunct Curator, Anthropology, Field Museum
Patty Gerstenblith, Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law
Anne P. Underhill, Associate Curator of Asian Anthropology, Field Museum; Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University and University of Illinois-Chicago

Also read “Stop Plundering China’s Past” by Magnus Fiskesjö, Robert Bagley, and Robert Murowchick, March 16, 2005

Letters to The New York Times

To the Editor:
Re “China’s Request for Art-Import Ban Stirs Debate” (April 1, 2005):
Mr. Kennedy’s “dealers and museums versus archaeologists” characterization ignores the fact that CPAC represents all of the American people, 96% of whom favor laws that protect cultural heritage, according to a 2000 Harris poll.” Nearly 700 petitions supporting China’s request gathered online by SAFE ( further demonstrate that people want our undiscovered past to be preserved wherever it happens to be—not plundered for a quick buck. We all have a stake in the outcome and we demand to be heard.

Cindy Ho

Dear Editor:
Randy Kennedy quotes former Metropolitan Museum counsel Ashton Hawkins and others who dismiss Chinese cultural heritage protection efforts but offer no facts. Consider these: between 1981 and 1987 Chinese customs seized 70,226 smuggled artifacts and seized 127,000 artifacts between 1991 and 1997, clear evidence of tightened enforcement. Seizures continue under the tough 2002 Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics. And $834 million has been earmarked to build nearly 3,000 new museums in China by 2015.

Another key point: looted cultural artifacts smuggled from China are, by definition, stolen property. Quoting Mr. Hawkins, readers “should be aware that trafficking in any material whatsoever, stolen from a museum, cultural institution, religious institution or individual having a possessory interest is a criminal offense in the United States under the National Stolen Property Act. This Act applies to objects stolen in any country in the world” — including China.

P. K.

Sources to check the facts contained in my letter:

The 70,226 figure comes from, paragraph 3, sentence 2

The 127,000 figure is the sum total of numbers contained in fotenote 9, page 2, of letter submitted to CPAC by Patty Gerstenblith.

The Cultural Relic Protection Law, approved in October 2002 and put into force May 2003 is referenced at the bottom of page 1, top of page 2 and in footnotes 4 and 7 on page 2.

[Editor please note: the author of the above-referenced paper, Patty Gerstenblith, is an attorney, a Professor of law at DePaul University College of Law and Director of its Arts and Cultural Heritage Program. She served as a public representative of the CPAC committee in 2002-2003. She is an expert on international art law. Unlike Hawkins and others quoted in your article, she has no financial or professional stake in the outcome of the China request. She gave
testimony at the CPAC public session in favor of the China request.]

The $854 million / 3000 museums fact comes from Shan Jixiang, director of China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH).

The Ashton Hawkins stolen property quote comes from his own Cultural Policy Council website.

These statements are taken from more than 700 petitions gathered online via the SAFE petition, posted here with permission from the authors:

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. As a working field archaeologist, I know from personal experience of the damage and irreplaceable losses that looting, fueled by the demands of the art market, do all over the world. China is a vast, critically important area for world history and heritage and its past must be protected to the greatest extent possible.”

—Carla Antonaccio, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. It is immoral to condone this trade or not to act to stop it. It is a denial of the human race the right to collectively own the heritage in situ.”

—G. A., Los Angeles, California

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. China’s past is being sent in pieces to the US at an ever-increasing rate. Our local museums and art galleries are full of the sad remnants of looted tombs and archaeological sties as well as material robbed from museums in China. The days when the US could arrogantly claim that the world’s heritage was useful only for it’s own interior decorating pleasure are over and we owe it to humanity, not just the Chinese, to establish an MOU with them.”

—K. B., San Francisco, California

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. As a former archaeologist, I am painfully aware of the damage done to cultural history by the pillaging of archaeological sites. The illicit antiquities trade must be stopped, and this is a step in the right direction.”

—L. B., Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. Implementing this request will have significant and far-reaching effects throughout Asia.”

—Alexandra Cleworth, Sturbridge, Massachusetts

“I support China’s request to the United States for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. The United States has a vested interest in promoting the rule of law internationally. As a past supporter of antiquities protection treaties and accords, the United States has been a leader in this area, and must continue to promote the careful documentation, conservation, and trade in historic artifacts.

In addition, the United States government must support such efforts on behalf of its own citizens, public museums, and private organizations that engage in the lawful trade of such cultural artifacts. Restrictions that guarantee the proper authentication of antiquities in the stream of commerce is vital to U.S. interests, and the federal government must act accordingly to protect the interests of its citizens and associations.

At present, because of the tremendous illicit trafficking in Chinese artifacts, all appropriate restrictions, including an import ban, must be utilized in order to end the pillaging of historic sites in China and to allow time for proper procedural methods to be instituted for the excavation of such sites and subsequent documentation and certification of related artifacts.”

—Christopher Fullerton, Boston, Massachusetts

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. China’s contribution to human advancement throughout history is incalculable. Thus, it is everyone’s history that is being erased by looting. Let’s be the responsible country we’re supposed to be and do everything in our power to stop this destruction!”

—Jon Hanna, Stratford, New Jersey

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. Similar bilateral agreements for Peru and Mali >have worked to curtail looting of archaeological resources in these countries. Archaeological colleagues of mine have spoken from firsthand experience about the devastation in China, so protection of this type is badly needed.”

—B. H., Boston, Massachusetts

“There are enough gaps in the material remains of all cultures; decreasing the looting that occurs in China would provide a good model for other sites that are being pillaged.”

—Teresa Kirkland, New Orleans, Louisiana

“I support China’s request to the United States for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. It is absolutely imperative that the ancient artifacts from China’s long long history be preserved. The plundering must be stopped and restricting importation is an essential threshold for putting a stop to the terrible loss of these irreplaceable treasures.”

—Diane Moss, New York, New York

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. How can the history of the world be studied if the artifacts that tell the stories are scattered? Archaeology, history and the knowledge of who we (the world) were should not be a possession of those who have the most money. Everyone should be able to learn from and see the artifacts.”

—M. M.

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. Can we not curb the voracious appetite to the heritage of others for unrestrained monetary gain? Let us step up to the plate to show our support of the quality of life and right to history of all.”

—Celeste Regal, Kearny, New Jersey

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. China’s cultural heritage must be preserved. Only objects found, studied, and exhibited within their proper found cultural context are really useful in explaining the history of a nation. We need China’s to be kept intact.”

—A. S., Stillwater, Minnesota

“As a former archaeologist, I’ve learned about the serious threats to China’s archaeological resources. The looting of archaeological sites is a problem around the world, as we have seen perhaps most vividly in Iraq recently. Like many other countries facing crises in the destruction of their archaeological resources, China combines an extraordinarily rich archaeological heritage with rural poverty, which creates a great incentive for looting, particularly when the U.S. provides a ready market for unprovenanced antiquities.

As a law student, I understand the limitations of the CPIA but also realize that principles of equity dictate that we should respond favorably to China’s request for import restrictions. China is taking strong internal measures to clamp down on illegal looting and to prevent the export of its cultural heritage. These internal measures can only go so far. The antiquities trade, like any other market, involves suppliers and consumers. The U.S. Must join other antiquities consuming nations in agreeing not to allow illicit Chinese antiquities to be brought into this country and sold here with impunity. I ask you please to support China’s request for antiquities import restrictions. Thank you.”

—A. S., Birmingham, Alabama

“As a student of Archaeology, who will depend on history for a future career, I find it unacceptable to squander the cultural heritage of our world to satisfy the desires of a few. The United States would be setting a fine example by taking this step to ban importation of antiquities that the intellectual community KNOWS is wrong.”

—F. S., Boston, Massachusetts

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. I am the parent of a 2-year-old daughter adopted from China.”

—S. W., Cincinnati, Ohio

“I support China’s request to the US for import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities. Because those antiquities are the treasures of the whole world, protecting them is protecting the cultural heritage of the whole human race. Thank you!”

—Z. Z., Lauderdale, Minnesota

Painted coffin from the Liao Dynasty (907–1125), constructed of more than 50 pieces of painted wood, was stolen from the plundered tombs of Chifeng, Inner Mongolia.