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Lost Chinese Relics Find Their Way Back Home

Source:China Daily Published:2019-03-08 11:30

  The Chinese items found at Don Miller's home were returned to the country last week. [PHOTO BYZHANG RUINAN/CHINA DAILY]

Cultural items repatriated after raid on US farm

Five years ago, when Tim Carpenter's team seized about 7,000 artifacts and cultural relics in a raid on a farm in Indiana, United States, the FBI agent was stunned by just how many there were and their variety, and immediately realized many were from other countries, including China.

A total of 361 relics and artifacts identified as being from China were repatriated by the US government on Feb 28.

Ranging from the Neolithic Age (10,000-2,000 BC) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the items included stoneware, jade objects, bronze weapons and pottery. The haul constituted the largest repatriation of relics from the US since 2009, when the country and China signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance cooperation in this respect.

"We seized about 5,000 artifacts and about 2,000 human bones," Carpenter, head of the FBI's Art Crime Team said, adding that the bones were from about 500 humans and had been unearthed at ancient Native American burial sites.

He said the items were seized from the home of 91-year-old Indiana missionary Don Miller, adding that about half of them were Native American, and the remainder were from other countries, including China.

"Miller's collecting career spanned decades and he visited China and neighboring countries on a number of occasions, so I think that on each of these trips he collected a certain number (of these items) and was able to bring them into America through various means.

"We began our dialogue with our Chinese counterparts two years ago, with inventories of part of the collection," Carpenter said, adding that his team started that process by "determining which pieces may be violations (of the law), which pieces may be not; which were authentic, and those that were questionable".

  Hu Bing, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration (second left), and Aleisha Woodward of the US State Department (left), view the relics. [PHOTO BYZHANG RUINAN/CHINA DAILY]

While there is a legal market in cultural property, and merely possessing a certain cultural item is not illegal in itself, Carpenter said his team had to investigate Miller's collection and determine which pieces were problematic.

"There were 42,000 pieces in the collection, but we had to look at it in terms of what was illegally or improperly obtained. We examined the evidence we collected and the statements that Don Miller gave to us. We sat down and talked to him about his collecting practices-where he got this piece, where he got that piece-and based on that information we were able to make decisions.

"Identifying these objects is not my area of expertise, but I tell folks that I'm an expert at finding experts," Carpenter said.

In 2014, he turned to Holly Cusack-McVeigh, a professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Cusack-McVeigh said, "When the case came to light, I got a phone call from the agent in charge of it, Carpenter, who immediately recognized that he was going to need to partner with academia and source communities in order to identify and move all of the objects safely.

"They (the FBI) were in need of assistance because of the sheer number of objects and the massive operation. You have to have people who know how to handle objects in order to care for them properly."

Cusack-McVeigh said that since 2014, dozens of students majoring in anthropology and museum studies, along with alumni from IUPUI, have helped identify, move and preserve the objects.

"That first year, in the spring of 2014, I had more than two dozen students assisting me, either recent graduates or current graduate students. Many of the objects we looked at we recognized as coming from China, but we were uncertain about where others came from," she said.

Cusack-McVeigh said she and her helpers worked with experts from China's National Cultural Heritage Administration.

She said they established a database and invited other countries and domestic communities with an interest in the subject "to join the database, look at what we have, and help us determine whether it belongs to them".

"We were also able to handle the objects properly, help store them for shipping, and over the course of caring for them, ensure that the humidity levels and temperature in the storage areas were right for the type of items involved," Cusack-McVeigh said.

Liz Ale, a graduate student at IUPUI who helped take care of a number of Chinese artifacts, said: "I helped with managing the items and preparing them for repatriation. We had to make sure everything was stable, in the right place and stored correctly.

"We monitored the temperature, humidity and sunlight very carefully, because any of these can degrade the objects," she said, adding that they tried their hardest to preserve them as best as they could.

Ale said they treated artifacts from all nations equally.

Cusack-McVeigh said that late last month "we finally got to meet with our partners (from China) face to face. And I think that we formed some permanent friendships", adding that she has received an invitation to visit Beijing.

"I am looking forward to a visit in which we can go to Beijing and see the objects again-in their homeland, where they belong, and with their people," she said.

Carpenter said that since the raid, the FBI has returned items from Miller's collection to their countries of origin, including Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand and Spain.

He said he is delighted to see the Chinese items being returned to their home country, and the FBI will continue this process with other nations, but it may take several more years to complete.

"This (repatriation) is fantastic. This is why we do these things. Cultural property is different from TVs and cars-this is heritage and people's identity," Carpenter said.

Hu Bing, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, said, "China appreciates the US' commitment and contribution to the protection of China's relics and artifacts."

This is the third time the US government has repatriated such artifacts to its Chinese counterpart since the MOU was signed.

In March 2011, 14 artifacts were repatriated to China by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, while in December 2015, 22 Chinese artifacts and the fossil of a microraptor (a small winged dinosaur) estimated to be about 120 million years old were returned at the Chinese embassy in Washington.

Hu said the latest repatriation is the result of the long-term cooperation between the US and China, and will further enhance the trust and understanding between the two peoples.

In January, China and the US re-signed the MOU.

Aleisha Woodward, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the US State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said: "I was thrilled that we were able to sign a new five-year agreement earlier this year in Beijing."

Hu said China has signed bilateral agreements with the US and 20 other nations on combating the theft of relics, excavation and smuggling.

In recent years, the National Cultural Heritage Administration has contributed to the return of some 4,000 Chinese cultural relics on about 30 occasions through diplomatic, judicial and consultation channels.

They include bronze animal heads from the Old Summer Palace, golden ornaments from Dabaozi Mountain in Gansu province and a vessel known as the Bronze Tiger Ying, which dates to the Western Zhou period (1046 BC-771 BC).

Hu said China hopes to further its collaboration and exchanges with the US in combating the looting, theft and smuggling of relics, to help secure an "open and win-win cultural atmosphere in the world".

Editor:Zhao Xichen