Chinese Tomb Looters – “To be rich dig up an ancient tomb; to make a fortune open a coffin.”

Looting is a serious problem in China. Looters have ravaged ancient tombs and archeological sites, taking priceless relics, armor, weapons, porcelain, bronzes, silk and ornaments. In many cases the looting is done by farmers, construction workers and criminal gangs. Many farmers have turned to looting because they make so little money from farming, their living expenses are high and looting presents an opportunity to make a lot of money quick that is hard to resist. According to one peasant saying: “To be rich dig up an ancient tomb; to make a fortune open a coffin.” Evidence of looting is founded in the flashy clothes and nice homes owned by former peasant farmers.


Auctions, antique fairs and art galleries are filled with looted works. It is estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of the Chinese art sold on the international market was somehow illegally obtained. Beginning around 1980, a stream of bronzes, ceramics and jades from Neolithic times to the 14th century began pouring into Western markets via Hong Kong. The objects originated on the mainland and most likely were looted from tombs. Over the years the amount of this kind of art available on the market has increased dramatically.

The looted articles are usually taken to Hong Kong, where they are given fake histories and documentation. Much of the valuable stuff ends up at antique shops and galleries in Hong Kong or auction houses and top galleries in the United States, Europe and Japan. In Hong Kong it is possible to buy Tang celedons, Ming bowls, even 2000-year-old terra-cotta and neolithic figures. It is widely believed that items are smuggled out the country with the help of bribed local and high-level government officials.

By some estimates 300,000 to 400,000 ancient Chinese tombs have been raided in China in the past 25 years and 220,000 tombs were broken into between 1998 and 2003. Looting is particularly big problem around Xian, the home of the terra-cotta army and other archeological sites, and the city of Luoyang, the capital of at least nine dynasties. These areas are littered with imperial tombs that are mostly unguarded and easy pickings for looters.

Sometimes the art is stolen outright from museums, temples, archeological sites or government warehouses that store art and artifacts. A stone-carving of Buddha purchased for $2 million and displayed at the Miho Museum, near Kyoto, Japan, was stolen from an office in Boxing County in Shandong province in 1994. In 1997, a gang of thieves used a diamond saw and sledgehammer to knock off the head of a 7th century Akshobhya Buddha, one of four large statues of Buddha at the Four Gate Pagoda in Shandong Province. The thieves were caught soon afterwards but the head disappeared. In February 2002, it turned up as a gift from loyal disciples to a 73-year-old Buddhist master and founder of a meditation center. The Buddhist master alerted authorities. In December 2002 the head was placed back on the torso it was originally taken from.

Looting Operations in China

The looters usually work at night. It is not unusual for them to be half drunk. New recruits are often spooked about the idea of raiding tomb after a lifetime of listening to ghost stories. The work often involves tunneling. For those who go down the tunnels the work is very dangerous. It is not uncommon for the tunnels to collapse or the looters to be overcome by toxic fumes in the tomb. The looters who do the work are paid about $60 a night by middle men and dealers who make thousands of dollars off their work and have much fewer risks.

Some of the looting operations can be quite sophisticated. In Xian a team of looters broke into the 2000-year-old tomb of the Empress Dou, a powerful Han dynasty dowager who died in 135 B.C., and made off with a huge cache of treasures. The tomb was located 131 feet below the surface inside a burial mound. With a tangon a special shovel with a curved blade and steel screw on handle extensions that can be used to extract soil samples from over 100 feet below the surface the looters probed beneath the surface looking for things like charcoal which ancient gravedigger placed around tombs for protection against moisture to locate the best place to excavate.

To reach the tomb the gang dug a 115-foot-deep tunnel. To help them get started they used dynamite to blast a small crater at the surface to speed up the digging process. They were careful not use explosives powerful enough to cause the roof of the tunnel to collapse. Members of the gangs and their gear were lowered into the tunnel with a rope. An air blower powered by a portable generator pumped in fresh air from the surface. To reach the tomb roof a breach tunnel was built off the main tunnel. Saws were used to cut through the wooden-plank roof of the tomb.

Once inside the tomb the looters donned gas mask to filter out the stale air and toxic gases that have accumulated in the tomb as a result of decay. Without gas masks looters often pass out from the fumes. Police were alerted that looting was going on by villagers who smelled fumes from the explosives blown towards their a village. Three looters were arrested. Two got away. After the police left another gang penetrated the tomb and made off with at least 2000 object, mostly ceramic statues (gold and valuable art is believed to be have carted away centuries earlier).

Some of the pieces were found by customs during a routine check of new ceramics. Others made their way to New York and were pulled from a Sotheby’s auction just 20 minutes before bidding on them was to began. They were eventually returned. Other pieces undoubtedly did find buyers.

Scale and Sophistication of Looting in China Increases

The Guardian reported in January 2012, “ China’s extraordinary historical treasures are under threat from increasingly aggressive and sophisticated tomb raiders, who destroy precious archaeological evidence as they swipe irreplaceable relics. The thieves use dynamite and even bulldozers to break into the deepest chambers — and night vision goggles and oxygen canisters to search them. The artifacts they take are often sold on within days to international dealers.

Tomb theft is a global problem that has gone on for centuries. But the sheer scope of China’s heritage — with thousands of sites, many of them in remote locations — poses a particular challenge. “Before, China had a large number of valuable ancient tombs and although it was really depressing to see a tomb raided, it was still possible to run into a similar one in the future,” said Professor Wei Zheng, an archaeologist at Peking University. “Nowadays too many have been destroyed. Once one is raided, it is really difficult to find a similar one.”

His colleague, Professor Lei Xingshan, said: “We used to say nine out of 10 tombs were empty because of tomb-raiding, but now it has become 9.5 out of 10.” Their team found more than 900 tombs in one part of Shanxi they researched and almost every one had been raided. Wei said precious evidence such as how and when the tomb was built was often destroyed in raids, even if relics could be recovered. “Quite apart from the valuable objects lost, the site is also damaged and its academic value is diminished,” he said.

Wei and Lei spent two years excavating two high grade tombs from the Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou periods (jointly spanning 1100BC to 221BC) and found both had been completely emptied by thieves. “It really is devastating to see it happening,” Zheng said. “Archaeologists are now simply chasing after tomb raiders.”

Experts say the problem became worse as China’s economy opened up, with domestic and international collectors creating a huge market for thieves. Zheng said a phrase emerged in the 1980s: “If you want to be rich, dig up old tombs and become a millionaire overnight.”

According to AFP: “The demand for Chinese antiquities has exploded, helping propel Hong Kong to third spot in the global auction market behind London and New York as collectors slap down eye-popping sums for a piece of the country’s history. Helping drive the boom is a growing class of super-rich Chinese looking for opportunities to exploit their net worth while also “reclaiming” parts of Chinese history from Western collectors. Auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s together raised over $460 million from sales of Chinese antiquities and art works in 2011.

Professional Looters in China

Officials say tomb thefts have become increasingly professionalized. Gangs from the provinces worst hit — Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan, which all have a particularly rich archaeological heritage — have begun exporting their expertise to other regions. One researcher estimated that 100,000 people were involved in the trade nationally.

Wei Yongshun, a senior investigator, told China Daily in 2011 that crime bosses often hired experienced teams of tomb thieves and sold the plunder on to middlemen as quickly as they could. Other officers told how thieves paid farmers to show them the tombs and help them hide from police.

Raiders return to a site repeatedly over months. In some cases, thieves have reportedly built small “factories” next to tombs — allowing them to break in without being noticed.

Wei said: “Stolen cultural artifacts are usually first smuggled out through Hong Kong and Macao and then taken to Taiwan, Canada, America or European countries to be traded.”

Audacity and Destructiveness of Looters

The sheer size as well as value of the relics demonstrates the audacity of the raiders — last year, the Chinese authorities recovered a 27-tonne sarcophagus that had been stolen from Xi’an and shipped to the US. It took four years of searching before China identified the collector who had bought the piece — from the tomb of Tang dynasty concubine Wu Huifei — for an estimated $1m (£650,000), and secured its return.

In a particularly alarming case last year, raiders simply bulldozed their way through 10 newly discovered tombs in eastern Jiangxi province. The Global Times newspaper reported that pieces of coffins and pottery and iron items were scattered across the ravaged site, which was thought to date back 2,000 years. Archaeologists said further excavation was impossible because the destruction was so bad.

Underwater Looting in China and Combating It

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The biggest threat to underwater archaeology, Cui says, is the popularity of the artifacts such sites carry. Unblemished, authentic Ming Dynasty porcelain can command high prices from collectors, and thieves have learned to target sunken ships to find it. According to the archaeologists at Nan’ao, keeping the wreck well protected has been the key to their success. However, they are on-site only a few months a year. The rest of the time, Nan’ao Number One is under the watch of one determined local law enforcement officer. “If we had no Zhu Zhixiong, we would have no Nan’ao,” Cui says.

Zhu, or Chief Zhu, as everyone on the boat calls him, is the head of Nan’ao Island’s maritime border control. He is perpetually in uniform and has a tendency to stare, earnest and unblinking, when speaking about the Nan’ao. “When the fishermen uncovered the porcelain they wanted to keep it,” he says. They discovered the Nan’ao’s treasures while diving off the coast of the island in 2007 and set about building their collection in secret, hoping to attract the attention of a buyer. Instead, tales of the stash reached Zhu. “We run a program where we reach out to the local people and they feel comfortable talking to us,” Zhu explains. “Somebody came to us and told us about the artifacts.” The border patrol confiscated the porcelain and Zhu did his best to explain to other fishermen that retrieving and selling the artifacts is against the law.

“We didn’t do this for glory,” Zhu says. “We didn’t know what was down there at that point. We don’t dive, we can’t see under the water, but we know it is important to protect our national heritage.” Zhu dedicated himself to guarding a wreck he couldn’t see. “This isn’t just a Chinese problem,” Zhu says carefully. “But thieves and treasure hunters are tireless.” At the Nan’ao wreck, Zhu set up 24-hour surveillance. “They will come at night or in bad weather, thinking you won’t chase them. Some of them are very professional.” Some haul in diving gear and lights. Others are fishermen and experienced enough in the water to free dive 90 feet to the bottom. “One boat must have studied our habits and came in through an area we weren’t patrolling. When we came with our boats they fled, but we saw, with complete clarity, where they were headed.” Zhu’s team called ahead to another guard base and caught the thieves.

Over the years, Zhu’s reputation has spread. Patrol officers say they are seeing fewer attempts every year. Still, says Zhu, you have to be vigilant. “You can’t sleep if you want to protect our heritage,” he says. When Cui sees him on the deck of the Nan Tianshun, he gives him an affectionate pat on the shoulder and says, “Every wreck needs its own Chief Zhu.”

Combating Looting in China

To combat looting 1) auction houses and antiques dealers are required to reapply every year for their licenses; 2) motion sensors and satellite devises have been installed at archeological sites and places with a lot tombs; and 3) volunteers have been marshaled to guard the best-known sites. Chinese law forbids the export of art more than 200 years old. The looting problem is still serious but many believed its is not as bad as it once was. Smuggling and looting was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Tania Branigan wrote in the Guardian, “Police have already stepped up their campaign against the criminals and the government is devoting extra resources to protecting sites and tracing offenders. This year it set up a national information centre to tackle such crimes. Spending on protecting cultural relics as a whole soared from 765m yuan in 2006 to 9.7bn in 2011.

The crackdown by authorities was helping to contain the problem to an extent. According to the ministry of public security, police investigated 451 tomb-raiding cases in 2010 and another 387 involving the theft of relics. In the first six months of that year, they smashed 71 gangs, detained 787 suspects and recovered 2,366 artifacts. Those caught face fines and jail terms of three to 10 years, or life in the most serious cases.

Luo Xizhe of the Shaanxi provincial cultural relics bureau told China Daily: “If we don’t take immediate and effective steps to protect these artifacts, there will be none of these things left to protect in 10 years.” He said provincial and national authorities planned to spend more than 100m yuan (£10m) on surveillance equipment for tombs in Shaanxi over the next five years. But video surveillance and infrared imaging devices for night-time monitoring cost 5m yuan for even a small grave, he added.

Local officials have insufficient resources to prevent the crimes and often do not see the thefts as a priority. Others turn a blind eye after being bribed by gangs. But international collectors bear as much responsibility for the crimes as the actual thieves: the high prices they offer create the incentive for criminals.

Several looters who have been caught have received the death penalty. In 1987, some looters received the death penalty after they were caught trying to sell the head of one Xian’s famous terra-cotta soldiers to a foreign dealer for $81,000. In May 2003, three men were executed for plundering tombs dating back to 2,000 years.

Many feel that most effective measure would be import ban on antiques in Europe, Japan and the United States. Many looted items are believed to end up on the United States. Beijing has repeatedly urged Washington to adopt a ban on imports of any art or artifacts predating 1911. Thus far Washington has not responded in part because of fierce objection by art dealers and collectors. Some would like to see tough measures taken in Hong Kong as well. Demonstrations have been held there calling for an end to auctions where looted mainland art is sold

Hunt in Foreign Museums for Art Treasures Taken From China

In late 2009, a delegation of Chinese cultural experts swept through American institutions, seeking to reclaim items once ensconced at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was one of the world’s most richly appointed imperial residences until British and French troops plundered it in 1860. The delegation visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with a crew from China’s national broadcaster filming the visit and fired off questions about the provenance of objects on display and requested documentation on a collection of jade pieces to show that the pieces had been acquired legally…But when nothing out-of-order was discovered the Chinese posed for a group photo and left.

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “ Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties. But the quest, fueled by national pride, has been quixotic, provoking fear at institutions overseas but in the end amounting to little more than a public relations show aimed at audiences back home.”

“Stoked by populist sentiment but carefully managed by the Communist Party, the drive to reclaim lost cultural property has so far been halting. While officials privately acknowledge there is scant legal basis for repatriation, their public statements suggest that they would use lawsuits, diplomatic pressure and shame to bring home looted objects — not unlike Italy, Greece and Egypt, which have sought, with some success, to recover antiquities in European and American museums.”

“The United States scouting tour — visits to England, France and Japan will come early next year — quickly turned into a spectacle sponsored by a Chinese liquor company. As for the eight-member delegation, a closer look revealed that most either were employed by the Chinese media or were from the palace museum’s propaganda department.

But the 20-day spin through a dozen institutions has not been especially fruitful. Wu Jiabi, an archaeologist and the leader of the delegation, said that meaningful contacts were made but acknowledged that the group had not discovered illicit relics. The visit has had its share of mishaps. Not all the museums on the itinerary were prepared for the delegation. One stop, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., was scrapped after the group realized the museum was in the Midwest, not in the Northeast.

The art experts whom the group met along the way offered consistent advice: the lion’s share of palace relics are in private hands, including those of collectors in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. The best thing would be to look through the catalogs of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, said a curator at the Metropolitan Museum.

Although the Chinese public broadly supports recovering such items, a few critics have suggested that the campaign merely distracts from the continued destruction of historic buildings and archaeological sites across the country. A government survey released this month found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development.

What’s more, said Wu Zuolai, a professor at the China Academy of Art, the obsession with Yuanmingyuan ignores the plunder of older sites that are more artistically significant. Chinese history did not start with the Qing Dynasty, he said. This treasure hunting trip is just a political show. The media portray it as patriotic, but it’s just spreading hate.

A researcher who was part of the delegation, seemed to admit as much, complaining that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembled little more than a military barracks. To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken, he said.