As I gather my thoughts and photos together from Vietnam to soon begin a series of posts discussing the antiquities trade in Hanoi as I observed it last month, this interim post concerns the following article. It concerns the continuation and apparent escalation of organized, literal tomb raiding in several provinces around China, specifically highlighting the situation in Shaanxi province. Criminal gangs from several nearby provinces have descended on the province in droves, with local police having solved 250 cases of raiding/smuggling since 2009 alone.
However, it is clear from the article that this is a drop in the ocean of what's really going on. What was most disturbing, and obviously the most challenging for local and national archaeologists and non-corrupt officials to deal with, is the degree and extent to which these gangs form "alliances" with either local villagers or even local police. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to China, but the situation again indicates why the severity of looting in China is among the worst in Asia; similar to what's going on in Peru.
On the upside however, the article suggests that increased village patrols, police presence, and even the self-induced reformations of former gang members/leaders while in prison appears to be having some effect. Note as an example the case of Pan Baocheng, the 53yr old gang member from Henan. He started to loot out of greed, was caught, and saw the error of his ways in prison. Or, the case of Pan Liusuo (see photo above left), also from Henan, serving time in the Dafeng detention centre. Sometimes, if the stolen and smuggled antiquities are "high profile" enough (like the grave goods of Wu Huifei, sold in 2006 to US collectors, but later returned to the Shaanxi History Museum), they can be tracked down and repatriated. Perhaps a similar fate would have awaited the Baphuon lintel described in my last post (if authenticated), should it have been purchased and shipped? It is common knowledge, however, that such high profile pieces are a tiny fraction of the global trade.
The legal punishments mentioned in the article strike me as very fair (and I would never advocate the death penalty), but at the end of the day, the task remains to stop these crimes before they start. Like anywhere else, increased vigilance, education, transnational cooperation and (where possible) the fostering of greater responsibility on the "demand" side. However, it can't be stated enough: the only way to avoid complacence in the destruction of global heritage and the archaeological record and/or avoid scams, fakes and individual ties to additional criminal activities is to NOT PURCHASE ANTIQUITIES!
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