Cultural relics in China are under critical threat from tomb raiders and thieves supplying a booming domestic and overseas market, one of the country's top relics officials warned in state press yesterday.
Smuggling and illegal excavations are rampant and the situation is expected to worsen as the market for Chinese art peaks, said He Shuzhong, director of law and policy at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH).
Relics that are illegally excavated, stolen from museum collections or smuggled used to flow mainly to Europe, Japan and the US but are now also turning up in private art collections in major Chinese cities.
"Such relics go where the highest prices are offered, but still a larger part of them have been smuggled abroad," He was cited as saying by the China Daily.
In 2002 Chinese customs authorities intercepted 8,780 of relics prohibited from leaving the country and that was just the tip of the iceberg, previous reports said.
Customs officials check only 5 percent of goods destined for overseas.
Generally traders purchase relics in markets or from large and organized networks of people, ranging from farmers to sophisticated antique experts.
They use foreign students, expatriates living in China or even tour groups to smuggle the goods out of China in often unchecked luggage. Many other pieces are shipped or mailed.
He said authorities had more difficulty than they did a decade ago preventing relics from leaving the country as those who previously took them to Hong Kong had now developed more than 100 routes to get them overseas.
Lax management by authorities also contributes to the problem with many relics simply taken from museums, Buddhist or Taoist temples and other historical sites.
New laws stipulate that all such cases be reported to the SACH, but that rarely occurs.
"It often happens that local authorities keep such cases secret and make no reports, or they simply do not realize their losses," said Liu Qifu, head of the relic security office of the SACH. One of the most famous smuggled objects, a bronze "bonanza" tree made during the Han Dynasty nearly 2,000 years ago, fetched US$2.5 million and was unearthed in the Three Gorges area of southwestern China.
It was sold by an antique dealer from Belgium to an American billionaire in 1998, creating a world record then in Chinese antique prices.