China blasts U.S. role in illegal relics trade

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has labeled the United States the world’s largest importer of smuggled Chinese relics, and demanded the country do more to combat the trade, state media reported on Wednesday.

China has repeatedly called on museums in Western countries to return artifacts taken by European and American archaeologists and adventurers, often crudely hacked out of caves and tombs.

Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, called on the United States to sign a memorandum of understanding with China to speed up cooperation in preventing relics’ theft and illegal trade.

“Among other countries, we want most to sign such an agreement with the U.S. We have worked on it for more than four years but the process has been slow recently,” the China Daily quoted Shan as saying.

Shan said signing an MOU had been supported by American archaeologists and scholars, but “influential museum directors and collectors” had been against it.

They had “held the incorrect view that these Chinese cultural properties in the U.S. have become part of American culture because they were there for a long time,” Shan said.

Shan said they should “come and see how invaluable murals were cruelly cut into pieces and taken away, and how ancient tombs were raided.”

Demand for Chinese art has soared among international collectors in recent years, with auctions of both modern and ancient artifacts achieving record sales.

But China has a mixed record on protecting its cultural relics. During the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, many priceless artifacts that were not taken to Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949 were destroyed by Mao Zedong’s Red Guards.

Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Macfie and Sanjeev Miglani