Italy to return 796 Chinese cultural relics in largest such repatriation in two decades

Italian premier Giuseppe Conte with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Villa Madama in Rome, Italy, on March 23, 2019.
Italian premier Giuseppe Conte with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Villa Madama in Rome, Italy, on March 23, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ROME (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Nearly 800 Chinese cultural relics that had been taken overseas will soon set off on their journey home.

In Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's presence, an intergovernmental agreement in Rome gave the green light last Saturday (March 23) for the return of 796 artifacts to China.

It will be the largest-scale international repatriation of lost Chinese cultural relics from overseas since 1998, when about 3,000 smuggled artifacts were returned from Britain.

According to the National Cultural Heritage Administration, the ancient Chinese works of art, thought to have been illicitly exported, were found in a local market in 2007 by the Carabinieri Art Squad, an Italian police unit responsible for combating cultural relics-related crimes.

Soon after, the administration contacted its Italian counterpart to start a long process of exploring the possibility of securing their return through judicial channels. An Italian court made the final ruling on their repatriation this year.

Ms Wu Min, of the administration's museum management department, said work would start immediately on arranging the details of how to transport the relics back to China.

The complete list of the 796 relics has yet to be released, but Ms Wu said they "are of abundant variety and generally high value".

She also said that they were relatively well-preserved and cover a wide spectrum of Chinese history ranging from 5,000 years ago to the early 20th century.

According to the administration, among the relics is a pottery jar from today's Gansu province that can be dated to the Majiayao culture, a Neolithic culture from the third millennium BC.

In addition, there are pottery figurines from the Han (206 BC to AD 220), Tang (618-907) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties and a porcelain bowl from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) from Fujian province.

The Carabinieri Art Squad suspected the relics had been stolen from archaeological sites.

Mr Alberto Bonisoli, the Italian minister of cultural heritage and activities, said in Rome that the return of the relics to Chinese people marked a great occasion. He expected that the National Museum of China in Beijing would hold an exhibition to display the treasures.

China has signed agreements and memorandums of understanding with 21 countries to cooperate in the fight against illicit international trade in cultural properties and facilitate the return of stolen artifacts. A repatriation agreement was reached with the United States on Feb 28, securing the return of over 360 artifacts.

On the eve of his state visit to Italy, Mr Xi pointed out in an article he wrote for Milan's Corriere della Sera daily newspaper that the importance of closer ties between World Cultural Heritage sites in the two countries promotes understanding of different cultures and the world's cultural diversity.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Yunnan province and Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in north-west Italy will become such sister sites, as will the West Lake Cultural Landscape in Hangzhou and City of Verona in Italy.

A five-year agreement (2013-17) between China and Italy enabled the National Museum of China and Palazzo Venezia in Rome to annually hold major exhibitions of cultural relics from each other's countries.

In continuity of the good relationship, 102 Renaissance and ancient Roman artworks from 17 Italian museums were exhibited in Beijing's Capital Museum last year.

Xinhua contributed to this story.