Hong Kong's role in looting: the uncomfortable truth

Hong Kong needs to examine its role in the illicit antiquities market and enforce its laws

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:29am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 7:09am

If Hong Kong is concerned about the looting of art and antiquities from China in the past, it has to consider its position in the international art and antiques market today.

In the last 15 years there has been a marked change in Beijing's expressed concern and consequent policy regarding Chinese cultural heritage, focused on the looting of Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, in 1860 by a combined force of British and French troops, led by Lord Elgin, a descendant of the purchaser of the Elgin Marbles.

In particular the attempts to sell bronze sculptures of animal heads from Yuanmingyuan's fountains resulted in criticism from Chinese citizens, including Jackie Chan, who loudly confirmed the views expressed at the time by French novelist Victor Hugo: "It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today." Chan even made a recent movie, Chinese Zodiac, about the heads.

The attempt in 2009 to sell the hare and rat sculptures at a Paris auction brought protests and legal challenges from Chinese citizens and the central government.

Attention was drawn to the looting of Yuanmingyuan when three of the heads were sold at auction in Hong Kong in 2000 to China Poly Group. Beijing then implemented new laws governing cultural relics and entered into agreements with other nations, such as the United States, regarding the illicit trade in Chinese antiquities.

Some Chinese citizens, prohibited from purchasing these disputed items by Beijing's concerns that doing so would legitimise the looting, began "purchasing" Chinese art and antiquities at auctions around the world, then refusing to pay. The Paris sale was prevented by one such heritage warrior. The hare and rat sculptures were returned to Beijing last year after talks with the auction house.

Auction houses now face the delicate problem of balancing their desire to share in this rich market against asking Chinese prospective buyers for deposits.

Although expressing support for Beijing, the Hong Kong government has not implemented any new policies or agreements to enable the return of looted items or prevent the trade in illicitly obtained Chinese treasures. The laws of Hong Kong would prevent any such trade if they were enforced.

This is important because Hong Kong has long been a well-respected centre for the Asian art and antiques market. There are many reputable dealers who pursue due diligence in researching the origin of their stock. The major auction houses have also held many important sales here as they have had difficulty in gaining a foothold on the mainland, and in consequence of recent clampdowns by mainland tax authorities on art sales on the mainland because of concerns regarding money laundering.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong also has a reputation as a channel for the trade in illicitly obtained Chinese antiquities. In line with the questions that have been asked about the origin of ivory in Hong Kong, answers must be sought when purchasers may choose from many hundreds of antiquities, including funerary objects which have been obtained from Chinese tombs.

Mainland and Hong Kong laws should ensure that such relics are the property of the state and any trade in them should be prohibited or strictly regulated. Hong Kong's laws provide for prosecution for smuggling or possession of illicitly obtained Chinese antiquities, but convictions are rare. The recent confiscation of ivory, and its proposed destruction, may mark a change in policy generally, although it may just ape similar ivory destruction in China.

If Hong Kong wishes to follow Beijing's expressed views on Chinese cultural heritage and support calls for the return of looted items then it should address concerns regarding its position in the illicit antiquities market and enforce its laws.

Steven Gallagher is a professional consultant and assistant dean (undergraduate student affairs) with the Faculty of Law, Chinese University