I have always been interested in the trade of illicit antiquities and did a research paper last semester on the nature of looting and theft of artifacts within the United States. However the artifacts stolen from American public lands constitute only a backwater in an international black market that ranks only behind drugs and weapons. My interest was piqued when Dr. Watrall mentioned the availability of ancient Chinese artifacts on eBay. Curious to see if this was true, I went on a search to see what artifacts may have found their way on to the market.
To my dismay there was an entire company specializing in ancient Chinese jade artifacts. Jadekylin was offering its customers a wide assortment of statuettes, hairpins, amulets, coins, and cups. The pricing ranged anywhere from over two-hundred dollars to less than ten. The company provided no documentation of authenticity or context of their artifacts, stating only that they came from either the countryside or private collections. Recognizing that these could very well be fakes, I decided to see if I could find any artifacts pertaining to some of the culture phases we had been studying.
To my dismay the search bar completed my search for Liangzhu antiques. Among the over one-hundred Liagnzhu artifacts for sale were clear examples of the Cong and Bi jade objects we had seen in class. My search for the Longshan brought up a similar array of artifacts for sale. I hoped that these were all forgeries being passed off as authentic pieces, but I knew that such a lucrative market could not be so easily contained.
Not having a clear idea of what the looting and smuggling situation was in China, I decided to see if I could find out some data on China’s role in the world market of stolen cultural heritage. China as it turns out is one of the counties being most severely targeted by the black market. Many of the looters are poor citizens who are looking for a way to supplement their family’s minimal income. The artifacts from one tomb can fetch a price equal to one year’s pay for a poor farmer. Others are professionals who make looting their business.
Both are part of increasing global demand for exotic artifacts, especially from Western counties like the United States. In the past decade over 200 auction houses, specializing in antiquities have sprung up in China. In 2003 it was estimated that over 220,000 Chinese archaeological sites had been stripped of their artifacts. Some of these will fetch prices well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. One top archaeologist estimated that 80-90% of the artifacts on the market were illegally obtained. That meant that most of the jade objects I could have easily bought on eBay had been unlawfully taken from their home nation.
While efforts to curb the trade are being set in place, the pandemic of looting will not be halted unless their is a more aggressive attempt to arrest the high end clienteles that are feeding the growing market. Until these private collectors are stopped, the demand for stolen cultural heritage will only continue to intensify.
Here is a link to a Time Magazine article that I used to get some of my data.http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,517790-1,00.html