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Time Magazine:Stealing Beauty

来源:Time Magazine    作者:Hannah Beech    2003-10-27
  

The citizens of Xiaoli Village move lazily, with a languor born of chronic underemployment. They are farmers by tradition, but exorbitant taxes have leached any profitability out of their profession. So on most hot days, the local peasants sit on concrete stoops, pant legs hiked up to their thighs, fanning themselves with the latest propaganda broadsheet from Beijing and waiting for dusk to fall. For it is only at night that Xiaoli comes alive.

Underneath this sad little village in Henan province is the rich legacy of five millenniums of Chinese history. The nearby city of Luoyang was the capital of at least nine dynasties, and the fields of today’s peasants are littered with imperial tombs. Many still hold impossibly valuable works of art buried centuries ago. Breaking into these tombs and stealing the national treasures they hold are illegal, of course. But the lure is too great for many, especially because one major haul, sold to a smuggler, can equal a year’s farming income. “For kids here, tomb raiding is just like going to the bar,” says Little Su, a Xiaoli doctor who put himself through medical school with the spoils of treasure hunts beneath the fields around his home. “If you’re bored one night, someone will say, ‘Hey, let’s go find a tomb.’” The rewards of these amateur and often dangerous nocturnal expeditions are evident in Little Su’s wardrobe–he has long since traded in baggy peasant garb for snazzy Playboy shirts and gleaming loafers–and in the incongruous mishmash of mud-brick shacks and shiny white-tiled houses with satellite dishes lining the streets of Xiaoli. “You can tell who raided the best tombs just by looking at their houses,” says Little Su. The richest citizens even have big-screen TVs and video-game machines. Little Su’s favorite game? Tomb Raider.

Archaeologists like to joke that the pillaging of temples and other ancient sites is the world’s second oldest profession. But what used to be a trickle of plundered treasures has become a flood in recent years. Villagers like Little Su, who see nothing wrong in converting an untapped resource into a few modern consumer appliances, are merely the first link in a global antiquities-smuggling chain that the U.N. says rivals the drug and arms trades in scope and scale. Says Kathryn Tubb, conservator of the Institute of Archaeology at University College of London: “It’s commonly accepted by those of us who work in the field that 80% to 90% of the material on the market is illicit.”

The trade in Asian relics–whether obtained legally or looted–is booming, driven by demand from wealthy Western and Eastern collectors seeking to decorate their SoHo lofts and Shanghai penthouses with everything from ancient Buddha heads to Khmer sculptures. During art auctions in London this summer, two of the brightest sales were of prized Asian objects, both of them legitimately acquired: a Chinese Qianlong-era jade vase from a private collection that went for $280,000 at Bonham’s and a calligraphy-brush washer from the Southern Song dynasty that sold for an astounding $1.2 million at Sotheby’s.

The global appetite for such relics has sparked a lawless gold rush across Asia. In the past year alone, Indian police busted a smuggling ring that allegedly stripped hundreds of temples and monuments of sculptures and frescoes, then sent them on to be sold to collectors in the U.S. and Europe; Cambodian cops seized several truckloads of priceless Khmer sculptures crudely ripped from archaeological sites in Banteay Meanchey province; and Chinese officials uncovered the theft of 158 pieces of religious statuary from a collection lent to a museum in Chengde by the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum in Beijing. Over the past five years, at least 220,000 ancient Chinese tombs have been broken into, according to estimates from China’s National Cultural Relics Bureau.

The dramatic ransacking of Baghdad’s national museum during the Iraq war may have grabbed headlines earlier this year, but the consistent, widespread and largely unremarked looting of Asia is far more damaging. “There is a feeling that Asia is filled with endless supplies of cultural relics,” says He Shuzhong, head of Cultural Heritage Watch, a nongovernmental cultural-preservation group in Beijing. “But if the looting continues at this pace, we’ll soon have nothing left to remind us of our glorious past. Baghdad was just a few weeks of destruction. Our heritage is experiencing a major blow every week, every month, every year.”

No country has lost so much so quickly as Cambodia, whose jungles hid cities built by the mysterious Angkor Empire between the 9th and 14th centuries. Peace has proved far more destructive than war to the turbulent nation’s antiquities. While the relic-rich northwest was under Khmer Rouge control through the mid-’90s, Western dealers couldn’t reach many of the prime sites for fear of land mines and cross fire. It was only with the full cessation of civil war a few years ago that foreigners could once again freely visit the relic sites around the legendary Angkor Wat temple complex. Since then, thousands of ancient Khmer relics have flooded the art market.

A diminutive, bowlegged archaeologist named Michel Tranet stands alone in trying to stanch that flow. Tranet is officially designated Undersecretary of State at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts–but it’s a comically grand title for a man whose entire staff consists of himself. Tranet, of Khmer-French parentage, returned from exile in 1993 with the sole mission of protecting Cambodia’s heritage. “Our history is so important to us that we have Angkor Wat on our flag,” says Tranet. “So why are we as a people, as a government, as a country, allowing our heritage to slip through our fingers?”

On days when Tranet doesn’t have much to do–and that’s often, he admits, as he is hobbled by a lack of funding–he heads across town to the customs house in Phnom Penh. Earlier this year, Tranet prevented a Frenchman from bribing a customs official to let him leave with an 18th century Buddha stolen from a pagoda in Posat province. The 5.3-ft. wooden statue now stands in a back-room workshop at Cambodia’s National Museum in Phnom Penh. If it were returned to the remote pagoda, Tranet fears that thieves would target it again. To Tranet, there are threats on every side–including foreign diplomats who use their immunity to sneak antiquities out of Cambodia without inspection. He suspects a Western diplomat has been smuggling objects overseas this way for more than a decade, while Cambodia’s government has looked the other way, fearful of losing the generous foreign aid provided by the diplomat’s homeland.

For all his energy and passion, there’s a sense of futility about Tranet’s efforts. “Without a staff,” he says, “I can only stop one person at a time. To do our job seriously, we need a big staff that checks every exit port every day.” In the meantime, the industrial-scale looting continues unabated. In 1999 entire slabs of bas-relief from Banteay Chhmar, a magnificent temple in western Cambodia, were loaded onto trucks and driven to Thailand. Roads were bulldozed through the jungle to carry out the sandstone chunks, leading Thai police who later intercepted the load to charge the Cambodian military with complicity. This March looters trekked upriver to Kbal Spean, a distant jungle enclave where elaborately carved bas-reliefs from the 11th century decorate the riverbed and surrounding rocks. It was nighttime, and they found the site unguarded because of the lack of funds. Using an electric saw, the raiders gouged out the faces of the god Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi. Apparently, they were not experts: Lakshmi’s face cleaved into several pieces, one of which was found beside the desecrated site the next day. Still Tranet estimates that the Vishnu face alone could sell for up to $50,000 in Bangkok–and several times that in the West.

No one has been arrested, and the local police just shake their heads when asked if an investigation is ongoing. Few will even discuss the incident because in Cambodia corruption and bribery are endemic, and retribution can be severe for those who interfere in profitable criminal enterprises. “These are things we don’t talk about,” says Khieu Kort, a guard whose hammock hangs near the looted site. “It’s too dangerous.” Tranet is less circumspect. He blames the country’s “chaotic political system,” which encourages Cambodians to pillage, protected by local authorities who sometimes receive a piece of the action. “Last year [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen accused the West of stealing our culture,” says Tranet, eyes blinking in agitation. “It’s easy to blame the Westerners, but we’re the ones who are handing over our culture to them.”

To see how locals are plundering their heritage, travel to the desolate villages southeast of Xi’an, the city that is home to China’s famed terra-cotta warriors. These villagers may be dirt poor, but the earth is rich. In early 2001 whispers began circulating that collectors would pay big money for anything dug up from the tomb of Empress Dou, a mighty dowager who died in 135 B.C. So well known was the burial site that locals assumed grave robbers had relieved the tomb’s chambers of any gold or silver centuries ago. But now collectors were willing to pay for artifacts the farmers hadn’t imagined anyone would want: clay pots grimy with antiquity, chipped ceramic statuettes and other detritus of burial rites. A local antiques dealer offered prospective tomb raiders $60 for a night’s work–about the same amount the average local earns after taxes in a year.

Five villagers agreed to do the job. Using a tangan, a crude shovel with a specially curved blade and an extra-long handle, they probed deep into the earth around the mound, extracting core samples and examining the dirt for indicators such as traces of charcoal, which the ancients packed around tombs to ward off humidity. Locating a likely spot, the villagers lighted the fuse on a 110-lb. lump of homemade dynamite and blew a hole in the middle of a wheat field. Having blasted their way to a spot near the top of the tomb, they donned gas masks to filter out the stale tomb air, then tunneled into the burial chamber.

By the next morning, the acrid smell of explosives had wafted to the nearest village, and someone tipped off the cops that looters might be at work. The following night police staked out the tomb. Three raiders were caught; two got away. State press reports hailed the arrests as a triumph, but instead of filling in the hole and posting a guard, the underfunded local cultural-relics bureau simply placed wooden planks across the hole and tossed in some dirt. Before long, other gangs pilfered at least 200 treasures, mostly ceramic statues, from the site. Among the loveliest of these pieces was a series of delicately painted female figurines, which could fetch at least $10,000 in the Xi’an underground market and up to $80,000 in London or New York City. Though just as rare, other figurines from Empress Dou’s tomb were worth only $6,000 apiece because of their unprepossessing color, a charcoal gray unique to some ceramics of this region.

To the destitute farmers of central China, the allure of such plunder is hard to resist–but the reality of life as a tomb raider is less enticing. Feng, who asks to be identified only by his last name, recalls vividly the first time he descended into the crumbly earth of Henan province six years ago. In his village on the outskirts of Luoyang, robbing a tomb is similar to an initiation rite, and Feng, then 19, was filled with nervous excitement as he and a group of fellow raiders ambled into a local wheat field to see what they could dig up. It was after midnight, and they had been drinking. In truth, Feng admits, he was a little spooked–children in this area are raised on ghost stories of imperial ancestors, haunting mischievous villagers. As the men tossed up spadefuls of dirt, chatting and laughing under the glare of a light hooked up to a generator, Feng noticed a smell he likened to fermented bean curd.

A few minutes later, Feng’s uncle told him that as the youngest, he would have the honor of going down on a solo reconnaissance mission. Eager to prove himself, Feng slithered down into the darkness with only a rope as a guide. But upon reaching the floor of the tomb, he was overwhelmed by the smell. Feng remembers nothing after that. Later his uncle told him he had fainted from the putrid air and had to be dragged out. The operation was halted until the next night when the looters lugged in an industrial air blower to clear out the tomb. After his uncle and another villager emerged with the first of five Tang-dynasty ceramic animals–each worth about $10,000 in the West–the young Feng felt a touch of proprietary pride. “I risked my life for those statues,” he says. “But when they came up with such expensive things, I was hooked.” Feng, who was paid $45 for his maiden raid, doesn’t mention the pieces’ beauty. It’s beyond him why Westerners would waste so much money on them. But the thrill of the treasure hunt hasn’t diminished: “The excitement gives our lives some meaning.”

Of course, his chosen field is not without its risks. Middlemen and dealers, who receive a vastly larger share of the profits from stolen art, are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. But the authorities occasionally like to make an example of the lowly looters, who are easier to catch. Last year Chinese courts meted out death penalties to at least four tomb raiders. “I know someone who was executed for looting a tomb,” says Feng. “He made 580 yuan [$70]. Now, I hear the tricolor female statue he dug up was recently resold in New York for 150,000 yuan [$18,000]. No one is getting arrested in New York. How fair is that?”

Once in a great while, though, a big fish does get caught. For years Indian police suspected unassuming handicrafts trader Vaman Narayan Ghia of leading a massive antiques-smuggling network that robbed hundreds of temples and palaces of their finest treasures. But the graying 55-year-old had always been far too careful to allow any cracks in his operation, police say. Each member of his art-smuggling chain knew only the member directly above, making it nearly impossible to connect the thieves who were occasionally caught with stolen art to the mastermind at the top. But on June 6, after an intense, yearlong operation involving scores of police, the Indian authorities believed they had the proof to link two stolen statues to Ghia. Still, as police knocked on the door of Ghia’s house in Jaipur to arrest him, they had no idea they were on the verge of dismantling the largest antiquities-smuggling ring in India’s modern history.

Inside Ghia’s home, the cops say they found hundreds of photographs of looted 9th to 11th century statues, a long list of private collectors’ phone numbers and 68 auction-house catalogs featuring some of the same artifacts. Based on a detailed confession from Ghia, police claim he spent 30 years smuggling an estimated 50,000 idols, paintings and statues stolen from protected monuments around the country. On Sept. 2, charges were filed against Ghia and 21 alleged looters believed to be part of his smuggling ring. Police retrieved stolen goods from some of them, including a dismantled Mughal pavilion the size of a small house and a 9.8-ft. Buddha statue that had been broken into three parts to ease transportation. Several of Ghia’s foreign clients have been named in the police charge sheet, and Indian police will seek authorization through the Foreign Ministry to question them. “We have enough evidence to prepare several cases against these people,” says Jaipur superintendent Anand Shrivastava, who is heading the investigation.

In one case, according to police, Ghia confessed to sending the owners of a Manhattan gallery some photographs of a temple ceiling adorned with 16 statues. The gallery owners agreed on a price, police say, and Ghia then arranged for the statues to be stolen and sent to the buyers in New York City. In his lengthy written confession, Ghia stated that other private collectors and dealers came to India and toured deserted temples to pick out precisely what they wanted stolen for them.

Some items that Ghia allegedly stole ended up on the block in Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses, say Indian authorities. Relics listed in Christie’s catalogs that police say were taken by Ghia included a 2.6-ft. sandstone frieze with an estimated value of $200,000 to $300,000 and a 2.7-ft. statue of the Hindu god Shiva. A Jain statue that was reported stolen on Oct. 7, 1999, turned up as Lot 135 in a Sotheby’s September 2000 catalog.

It’s entirely possible, however, that the auction houses and galleries did not know the items were stolen. “Christie’s are in contact with authorities and are helping them with their inquiries,” said a spokesperson for Christie’s London office. “As the investigation is ongoing, we do not have any further information to release at this time.” Diana Phillips, senior vice president at Sotheby’s, says, “We have not knowingly sold any items consigned by Mr. Ghia or companies affiliated with him for the past several years.” Sotheby’s, says Phillips, does not offer for sale “any object that we know or suspect is stolen, smuggled or looted.”

One of the private gallery owners with whom Ghia claims to have done business, according to Indian police, is Arnold Lieberman, one of America’s foremost dealers in Asian antiquities. When contacted, Lieberman said he had never met Ghia. “I’m a known person [in the industry],” he said (and thus an easy target). Mother-daughter Manhattan dealers Doris and Nancy Wiener were also named by Ghia. Nancy Wiener said she knew nothing about the case or Ghia. According to an art-world source, Ghia’s arrest sent shock waves through the business.

The very nature of antiquities makes the issue of ownership particularly murky. Many countries now have laws banning the export of ancient treasures, and an item taken recently from a temple or a grave or a palace is, by definition, stolen–but stolen from whom? Though much of European art sold by reputable dealers tends to have a detailed provenance–a record of where and when the item was procured and how it changed hands–antiquities from the developing world are often not held to the same standards. Only a tiny percentage of stolen art is ever reported. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of artifacts have yet to be documented by overburdened cultural-relics officials, so no paper trail exists.

Furthermore, in ancient civilizations such as India and China, some spoils of war and colonialism purloined a century or two ago by invaders have gradually come to be considered the legitimate property of whoever possesses them. Many international dealers and auction houses argue that Asia’s turbulent history makes it simply impossible for them to track the chain of ownership. But He, from Beijing-based Cultural Heritage Watch, says dealers aren’t trying hard enough and adds, “Can you imagine a Renoir suddenly appearing on the international market without any history of where it came from? It’s outrageous that nobody gives Asian art the same scrutiny.” An art dealer in Hong Kong is equally blunt about the benefits of willful ignorance. “Once these goods are taken from their original source, you can’t prove they were stolen,” he says. “It’s as if they never existed at all.”

Nevertheless, isolated victories do occur, as in the case of some of the figurines looted from Empress Dou’s tomb. By February 2002, the Xi’an police had caught Wang Cangyan, a local dealer who oversaw the shipment of dozens of Empress Dou’s figurines to Hong Kong, sneaking them through customs checkpoints by hiding them inside a truckload of new ceramics. Wang told the Xi’an police the name of a Hong Kong shop to which he had sold 32 statuettes.

Packed with legitimate antiques shops and those that specialize in fakes, Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road is a key Asian transit point for stolen Chinese antiquities. The rarest items are seldom displayed. “If someone walks in off the street and asks to see some real antiques, I’ll probably show them fakes,” says a Hollywood Road dealer who declines to be named. “But if they come in knowing exactly what they want and they know what the market rate is, I’ll bring in the real things from my warehouse.” In 2001, this dealer–who was busted a few years ago for selling an illicit item that was later impounded in the U.S.–heard about a collection of figurines stolen from Empress Dou’s tomb. He says he tried to get his hands on them, but another gallery owner, just down the street, scored the statues instead. In retrospect, he says, “I’m glad I didn’t get to buy them. I don’t need any more trouble.”

For Wang Cangyan, the dealer who had arranged the smuggling of the 32 figurines to Hong Kong, there has been plenty of trouble. He is currently serving a jail sentence, albeit significantly reduced to two years in return for his cooperation with the authorities. As for the Hong Kong gallery that bought the figurines from Wang: it was allowed to return them quietly to the mainland in exchange for keeping its identity secret.

But several of the other figurines that were smuggled to Hong Kong proved more elusive. The Xi’an police believe they were sneaked out of Hong Kong into Switzerland, where strict export documentation isn’t required. From there, say the police, they made their way to New York City. Tang Xiaojin, the Xi’an cop charged with tracking down the figurines, discovered this by accident when he was leafing through a copy of the March 2002 catalog Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art from Sotheby’s. Flipping past treasure after treasure, Tang suddenly stopped. Lot 32, credited as belonging to “various owners,” was very familiar: six charcoal gray figurines that were part of the very loot Tang had been tracking for months. They were set to go on sale in New York City in just a few days’ time. “I was astonished,” recalls Tang. “I never imagined they would have made it all the way to America.”

Tang and his colleagues moved fast. The Chinese embassy in Washington dispatched a representative to the auction house’s New York office. At first, according to a Chinese diplomat, Sotheby’s refused to exclude Lot 32 from auction, saying the Chinese didn’t have enough proof that the items had been taken from an imperial tomb just months before. Phillips, the Sotheby’s spokeswoman, says it had an unequivocal written warranty stating that the owner had good title to the objects. She also noted that none of the statuettes appeared in the Art Loss Registry, an international database of stolen art, which Sotheby’s co-founded. The only indication the auction house had that they were illicit came via a written request from China’s ambassador, Phillips says. After a flurry of negotiations, the auction house pulled the items–just 20 minutes before the bidding was set to begin.

Now, more than a year later, the six statuettes have been returned to China. They’re currently on show at a tatty museum on the outskirts of Xi’an in a display proudly titled “The Special Exhibition of Returned Pottery Figures of Western Han Dynasty from America.” Pointedly, each statuette still has a tag from Sotheby’s attached to its feet. Li Ku, vice director of the museum, rejoices in the figurines’ return. “Looking at these figures, I feel like my family has come home at last,” he says.

But, in truth, much of the loot from Empress Dou’s tomb–and the vast majority from countless other sites across Asia–is still missing. In India, Superintendent Shrivastava is delighted to have nabbed the nation’s top smuggler. But months after the momentous arrest, he has tracked down only a fraction of the relics Ghia is believed to have looted over the past three decades. Since news of the arrest was made public, three collectors have written to the police, offering to return stolen items they say they purchased in good faith. But most of the stolen treasures, still hidden inside a Manhattan loft or a Hong Kong boardroom, will probably never be recovered. “There is plenty,” Shrivastava mourns, “that has been lost forever.” –With reporting by Bu Hua/Xi’an, Simon Crittle/New York, Meenakshi Ganguly/Jaipur, Aparisim Ghosh/London and Robert Horn/Bangkok

With reporting by Bu Hua/Xi”an, Simon Crittle/New York, Meenakshi Ganguly/Jaipur, Bobby Ghosh/London and Robert Horn/Bangkok

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