The theft of cultural relics from ancient sites and museums in China jumped by 80 percent last year, officials said in state media yesterday, announcing plans to stop the plunder.
Forty cases involving 222 items stolen from protected sites and museums were recorded last year, an 81.8 percent increase year-on-year, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said.
Heritage officials cited by the China Daily said the protection of cultural relics had come under "severe threat from increases in illegal excavation, theft and smuggling in recent years."
In an effort to curb the trade, enforcement agencies across the country have been ordered to set up stringent safeguards, said administration official Liu Qifu, without specifying what measures would be taken.
According to officials, 21 of the cases last year involved units involved in relic protection, while 11 occurred in museums and eight in government offices responsible for relics.
The figure does not include thefts from illicit excavation at ancient tombs, said Shan Jixiang, head of the administration.
Driven by demand from overseas, the smuggling of relics has become a lucrative business. The goods mainly head to Europe, Japan and the US but are also turning up in private art collections in major Chinese cities, state media has previously reported.
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 or even tour groups to smuggle the goods out of China in often unchecked luggage. Many other pieces are shipped or mailed.
Experts quoted by Xinhua said relics could be smuggled out of the country as early as a week after they were stolen, making it all but impossible for cultural officials to trace them.