Looted cultural relics should be returned

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2009, 12:00am

China boasts 5,000 years of uninterrupted civilisation, yet the collections of artefacts and relics on display in the capital are missing some of the best artistic expressions of this history. Looting and smuggling since the first opium war in 1840 mean that some of the finest pieces are elsewhere in the world, in museums and private collections. Some were bought, but most were stolen. Whatever was plundered, no matter how long ago or what has happened since, should be given back.

There are 1.67 million Chinese cultural relics in more than 200 museums in 47 countries. The Kuomintang took a further 650,000 pieces to Taiwan when they fled in 1949. About 12 million artefacts are believed to be held overseas by individuals. As China's revival continues, it is natural that attention turns to the repatriation of this cultural heritage. Central to the discussion is Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. It was looted and burned by British and French soldiers in 1860 in retribution for the execution of 20 European and Indian prisoners. Bronze animal heads from a fountain in the complex rekindled debate when they were sold at auction in Paris in February. The issue has been given fresh impetus with the announcement that a team will visit dozens of museums to identify, document and create a database of stolen pieces.

Officials have said they will not ask for the return of identified relics. Perhaps this stance acknowledges reality. Diplomatic conventions allow governments to retrieve artefacts that have been stolen, but existing international regulations cannot be made retroactive for items lost for more than 100 years. In 2002, 18 leading institutions signed a declaration saying they would not hand back relics to countries of origin because their collections acted as 'universal museums' for the good of the world. Whatever the rules, it is difficult to argue that cultural relics belonging to China that are in overseas museums should remain where they are - particularly if they were stolen.

A country's history is of interest to its people before those of any other nation. Having artefacts in a single location is convenient for tourists and historians, but not the people of the country from which they were taken. International public opinion is in favour of China. A good starting point would be for overseas museums to return artefacts looted from the Summer Palace to their rightful place.