US man returns ancient relic to China almost 100 years after it was stolen

Head of stone statue thought to have been looted from Yungang Grottoes in the 1920s

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2018, 6:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 8:24am

A 1,500-year-old stone head has been gifted to a museum in northern China more than 90 years after it was stolen from what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The severed pate, which measures about 26cm (10 inches) in height, came from a statue of a mythical figure that was on display at Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province, local newspaper Shanxi Evening News reported.

The figure was part of the folklore of the Xianbei people, a nomadic group who lived in Mongolia and northeast China between the fourth and sixth centuries.

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Zhao Kunyu, an expert on the ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes near the city of Datong, said the head was probably stolen in the mid-1920s, as a book published in 1925 showed the sculpture still intact.

“It could have been a little earlier or later than 1925, as we don’t know exactly when the photo was taken,” he said.

What happened to the head in the decades that followed is unknown, but it eventually came into the possession of John Shun Chieh Wang, a Chinese-American man who used to work for an auction house in the United States.

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In 2016, he and his wife donated a stone sculpture of a Bodhisattva – which had also been stolen from Yungang – to Shanxi Museum, and on Friday their second gift was presented.

“I would say the artefacts found me rather than I found them,” the report quoted the 70 year old as saying.

It did not say how Wang came by the two relics, or how much they were worth.

Zhao said more than 100 sculptures had been stolen from the grottoes over the years, most of which ended up overseas, in places like the US, Japan and Europe.