Italy to return 800 stolen Chinese artefacts

ROME • Nearly 800 Chinese cultural relics that had been taken out of China will soon be sent back.

An intergovernmental agreement signed in Rome last Saturday in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte gave the green light for the return of 796 artefacts to China.

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

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

Soon after, the administration contacted its Italian counterpart to explore the possibility of securing the relics' 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 arrangements to transport the relics to China.

The complete list of the 796 relics has not been released yet, but Ms Wu said the artefacts "are of abundant variety and generally high value".

She also said that they are 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 (206BC to AD220), 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 suspects the relics had been stolen from archaeological sites.

Mr Alberto Bonisoli, Italy's Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities, said the return of the relics to the Chinese people marked a great occasion. He expected that the National Museum of China 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 artefacts.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'Italy to return 800 stolen Chinese artefacts'. Subscribe