The citizens of Xiaoli village move lazily, a languor born of chronic underemployment. They're farmers by tradition, but exorbitant taxes have leeched any profitability from their profession. So, most hot summer days, the local peasants sit on concrete stoops, pant legs hiked up to their thighs, fanning themselves with the latest propaganda broadsheet from Beijing and waiting for dusk to fall. For it is only at night that Xiaoli comes alive.
Underneath this sad little village in Henan province is the rich legacy of five millenniums of Chinese history. The nearby city of Luoyang was the capital of at least nine dynasties, and the fields of today's peasants are littered with imperial tombs. Many still hold impossibly valuable works of art buried centuries ago. Breaking into these tombs and stealing the national treasures they hold is illegal, of course. But the lure is too great for many, especially because one major haul, sold to a smuggler, can equal a year's farming income. "For kids here, tomb raiding is just like going to the bar," says Little Su, a Xiaoli doctor who put himself through medical school with the spoils of treasure hunts beneath the fields around his home. "There's nothing else to do. If you're bored one night, someone will say, hey, let's go find a tomb." The rewards of these amateur and often dangerous nocturnal expeditions are evident in Little Su's wardrobe—he's long since traded in baggy peasant garb for snazzy Playboy shirts and gleaming loafers—and in the incongruous mishmash of mud-brick shacks and shiny, white-tiled houses with satellite dishes lining the streets of Xiaoli. "You can tell who raided the best tombs just by looking at their houses," says Little Su. The richest citizens even have big-screen TVs and video-game machines. Little Su's favorite game? Tomb Raider.
Archaeologists like to joke that the pillaging of temples and other ancient sites is the world's second oldest profession. After all, civilizations' treasures have throughout history been looted and relooted by cat burglars and conquistadors alike. Grave robbing was even an officially recognized job description in China's Three States period during the 2nd century. But what used to be a trickle of plundered treasures has become a flood in recent years. Villagers like Little Su, who see nothing wrong in converting an untapped resource into a few modern consumer appliances, are merely the first link in a global antiquities-smuggling chain that the United Nations says rivals the drug and arms trades in scope and scale. Says Kathryn Tubb, conservator of the Institute of Archaeology at the University College of London: "It's commonly accepted by those of us who work in the field that 80% to 90% of the material on the market is illicit."
The trade in Asian relics—whether legally obtained or looted—is booming, driven by demand from wealthy Western and Eastern collectors seeking to decorate their SoHo lofts and Shanghai penthouses with everything from ancient buddha heads to Khmer sculptures. In China alone, some 200 auction houses, most dealing in antiquities, have opened in the past decade. During art auctions in London this summer, two of the brightest sales in an otherwise unspectacular season were prized Asian objects, both of them legitimately acquired: a Chinese Qianlong-era jade vase from a private collection was expected by Bonham's to sell for about $100,000 and was gaveled off at $280,000; at a Sotheby's sale, a private collector's calligraphy-brush washer from the Southern Song dynasty sold to a Taiwanese gallery for an astounding $1.2 million.
The global appetite for such relics has sparked a lawless gold rush across Asia. In the past year alone, Indian police busted a smuggling ring that allegedly stripped hundreds of temples and monuments of sculptures and frescoes, then sent them on to be sold to collectors in the U.S. and Europe; Cambodian cops seized several truckloads of priceless Khmer sculptures crudely ripped from archaeological sites in Banteay Meanchey province; and Chinese officials uncovered the theft of 158 religious statuary from a collection loaned to a museum in Chengde by the Forbidden City's Palace Museum in Beijing. Over the past five years, at least 220,000 ancient Chinese tombs have been broken into, according to estimates from China's National Cultural Relics Bureau.
The dramatic ransacking of Baghdad's national museum during the Iraq war may have grabbed headlines earlier this year, but the consistent, widespread and largely unremarked looting of Asia is far more damaging. "There is a feeling that Asia is filled with endless supplies of cultural relics," says He Shuzhong, head of Cultural Heritage Watch, a nongovernmental cultural-preservation group in Beijing. "But if the looting continues at this pace, we'll soon have nothing left to remind us of our glorious past. Baghdad was just a few weeks of destruction—our heritage is experiencing a major blow every week, every month, every year."
No country has lost so much so quickly as Cambodia, whose jungles hid cities built by the mysterious Angkor empire between the 9th and 14th centuries.
Peace has proved far more destructive to the turbulent nation's antiquities than war. When the relic-rich northwest was under Khmer Rouge control through the mid-'90s, Western dealers couldn't reach many of the prime sites for fear of land mines or crossfire. It was only with the full cessation of civil war a few years ago that foreigners could once again freely visit the relic sites around the legendary Angkor Wat temple complex. Since then, thousands of ancient Khmer relics have flooded the art market.
Most of the antiquities travel overland from Cambodia to Thailand, where ritzy Bangkok galleries openly display looted relics. "Of course they are all real," says a saleswoman in one of the galleries, gesturing toward two 1.5-meter-high statues of the Hindu god Vishnu in the window priced at $17,500 each. "I'll give you a certificate that says so." She has more in the back—even though other Bangkok shopkeepers say such items are getting harder to come by. A ban on the import of Khmer stone antiquities by several industrialized nations, including Japan and the U.S., coupled with regular Thai police raids on antique shops have curtailed the trade. But the saleswoman remains undaunted. "You can have these for a bargain," she says.
A diminutive, bowlegged archaeologist named Michel Tranet stands alone in trying to combat the opportunists who are plundering Cambodia's treasures. He is officially designated as Undersecretary of State at Cambodia's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts—but it's a comically grand title for a man whose entire staff consists of himself. Tranet, of mixed Khmer-French parentage, returned from exile in 1993 with the sole mission of protecting Cambodia's heritage. "Our history is so important to us that we have Angkor Wat on our flag," says Tranet. "So why are we as a people, as a government, as a country, allowing our heritage to slip through our fingers?"
On days when Tranet doesn't have much to do—and that's often, he admits, as he's hobbled by a lack of funding—he heads across town to the customs house in Phnom Penh in the hope of stanching the flow of antiques out of the country. Earlier this year, Tranet stopped a Frenchman from bribing a customs official to let him leave with an 18th century buddha stolen from a pagoda in Posat province. The 1.63-m wooden statue now stands in a backroom workshop at Cambodia's National Museum in Phnom Penh. If it were returned to the remote pagoda, Tranet fears that thieves would target it again. To Tranet, there are threats on every side—including foreign diplomats who use their immunity to sneak antiquities out of Cambodia without inspection. He suspects one Western diplomat has been smuggling objects overseas this way for more than a decade, while Cambodia's government has looked the other way, fearful of losing the generous foreign aid provided by the diplomat's homeland.
For all his energy and passion, there's a sense of futility about Tranet's efforts. "Without a staff," he says, "I can only stop one person at a time. To do our job seriously, we need a big staff that checks every exit port every day." In the meantime, the industrial-scale looting continues unabated. In 1999, entire slabs of bas-relief from Banteay Chhmar, a magnificent temple in western Cambodia, were loaded onto trucks and driven to Thailand. Roads were bulldozed through the jungle to carry out the sandstone chunks, leading Thai police who later intercepted the load to charge the Cambodian military with complicity. This March, looters trekked upriver to Kbal Spean, a distant jungle enclave where elaborately carved bas-reliefs from the 11th century decorate the riverbed and surrounding rocks. It was nighttime, and they found the site unguarded due to lack of funds. Using an electric saw, the raiders gouged out the face of Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi. Apparently, they were not experts: Lakshmi's face cleaved into several pieces, one of which was found beside the desecrated site the next day. Still, Tranet estimates that the Vishnu face alone could sell for up to $50,000 in Bangkok—and several times that in the West.
No one has been arrested and the local police just shake their heads when asked if an investigation is ongoing. Few will even discuss the incident, because in Cambodia, corruption and bribery are endemic and retribution can be severe for those who interfere in profitable criminal enterprises. "These are things we don't talk about," says Khieu Kort, a guard whose hammock hangs near the looted site. "It's too dangerous." Tranet is less circumspect. He blames the country's "chaotic political system," which encourages Cambodians to pillage, protected by local authorities that sometimes receive a piece of the action. "Last year, [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen accused the West of stealing our culture," says Tranet, eyes blinking in agitation. "It's easy to blame the Westerners, but we're the ones who are handing over our culture to them. We have nobody to blame but ourselves."
To see how locals are plundering their own heritage, travel to the desolate villages southeast of Xi'an, the city that is home to China's famed terra-cotta warriors. These villagers might be dirt-poor, but the earth is plenty rich. It was in early 2001 when whispers began circulating that collectors would pay big money for anything they could dig up from the tomb of Empress Dou, a mighty dowager who died in 135 B.C. So well known was the burial site that locals assumed ancient-grave robbers had long ago relieved the tomb's chambers of any gold or silver buried with the Empress. But now collectors were willing to pay for artifacts the farmers hadn't imagined anyone would want: clay pots grimy with antiquity, chipped ceramic statuettes and other detritus of burial rites. A local antiques dealer offered prospective tomb raiders $60 or more for a night's work—about the same amount the average local earns in an entire year, after taxes.
Five villagers agreed to do the job. Using a tangan, a crude shovel with a specially curved blade and an extra-long handle, they probed deep into the earth around the mound, extracting core samples and examining the dirt for indicators such as traces of charcoal, which the ancients packed around tombs to ward off humidity. Locating a likely spot, the villagers lit the fuse on a 50-kg lump of homemade dynamite and blew a hole in the middle of a wheatfield. Having blasted their way nearer the top of the tomb, they donned gas masks to filter the stale tomb air, then tunneled into the burial chamber itself.
By the next morning, the acrid smell of explosives had wafted to the nearest village, and someone tipped off the cops that looters might be at work. The following night the police staked out the tomb and spied the five raiders digging. Three of them were caught, the other two got away. State press hailed it as a triumph, but instead of filling in the hole and posting a guard, the underfunded local cultural-relics bureau simply placed wooden planks across the hole, tossed in some dirt and walked away. Before long, other gangs pilfered at least 200 treasures, mostly ceramic statues, from the site. Among the loveliest of these pieces was a series of delicately painted female figurines, which could fetch at least $10,000 in the Xi'an underground market and up to $80,000 in London or New York City. Though just as rare, other figurines from Empress Dou's tomb were worth only $6,000 apiece because of their unprepossessing color, a charcoal gray unique to some ceramics of this region.
To the destitute farmers of central China, the allure of such plunder is hard to resist—but the reality of life as a tomb raider is less enticing. Feng, who asks to be identified only by his last name, recalls vividly the first time he descended into the crumbly earth of Henan province six years ago. In his village on the outskirts of Luoyang, robbing a tomb is like an initiation rite, and Feng, then 19, was filled with nervous excitement as he and a group of fellow raiders ambled into a local wheatfield to see what they could dig up. It was after midnight, and they were all red-faced after an evening drinking sorghum spirits. In truth, Feng admits, he was a little spooked—children in this area are raised on ghost stories of imperial ancestors haunting mischievous villagers, even as adults make their living off the very graves these ancestors inhabit. As the men tossed up spadefuls of dirt, chatting and laughing under the glare of a light hooked up to a generator, Feng noticed a smell he likened to fermented bean curd. The stench from the stale tomb air was so noxious that one of the men standing over the hole staggered away and vomited.
A few minutes later, Feng's uncle told him that, as the youngest, he had the honor of going down on a solo reconnaissance mission. Eager to prove himself, Feng slithered down into the darkness with only a rope as a guide. When he took his first breath upon reaching the floor of the tomb, the smell overwhelmed him. Feng remembered nothing after that. Later, his uncle told him he had fainted from the putrid air, and a pair of other raiders had to drag Feng out. The operation was halted until the next night, when the looters lugged in an industrial air blower to clear out the tomb. When his uncle and another villager emerged with the first of five Tang dynasty ceramic animals—each worth about $10,000 in the West—the young Feng felt a touch of proprietary pride. "I risked my life for those statues," he says. "But when they came up with such expensive things, I was hooked." Feng, who was paid $45 for his maiden raid, doesn't mention the pieces' beauty—it's beyond him why Westerners would waste so much money on these dusty old things. But the thrill of the treasure hunt hasn't diminished: "The excitement gives our lives some meaning."
Of course, his chosen field is not without its risks. Middlemen and dealers, who receive the vast proportion of the profits from stolen art, are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. But the authorities occasionally like to make an example of the lowly looters, who are easier to catch. Last year Chinese courts meted out the death penalty to at least four tomb raiders. "I know someone who was executed for looting a tomb," says Feng. "He made 580 yuan [$70]. Now, I hear the tricolor female statue he dug up was recently resold in New York for 150,000 yuan [$18,000]. No one is getting arrested in New York. How fair is that?"
Once in a great while, though, a big fish does get caught. For years, Indian police had suspected unassuming handicrafts trader Vaman Narayan Ghia of leading a massive antiques-smuggling network that robbed hundreds of temples and palaces of their finest treasures. But the graying 55-year-old had always been far too careful to allow any cracks in his operation, police say. Each member of his art-smuggling chain knew only the member directly above, making it nearly impossible to connect the thieves who were occasionally caught with stolen art to the mastermind at the top. But on June 6, after an intense yearlong operation involving scores of police, the Indian authorities believed they had proof linking two stolen statues to Ghia. Still, as police knocked on the door of Ghia's house in Jaipur to arrest him, they had no idea they were on the verge of dismantling the largest antiquities-smuggling ring in India's modern history.
Inside Ghia's home, the cops say they found hundreds of photographs of looted 9th to 11th century statues, a long list of private collectors' phone numbers and 68 auction-house catalogs that featured some of the same artifacts. Based on a detailed confession from Ghia, police claim he spent 30 years smuggling an estimated 50,000 idols, paintings and statues stolen from protected monuments around the country. On Sept. 2, charges were filed against Ghia and 21 alleged looters believed to be part of his smuggling ring. Police retrieved stolen goods from some of them, including a dismantled Mughal pavilion the size of a small house and a 3-m buddha statue that had been broken into three parts to ease transportation. Several of Ghia's foreign clients have been named in the police charge sheet and Indian police will seek authorization through the Foreign Ministry to question them. "We have enough evidence to prepare several cases against these people," says Superintendent Anand Shrivastava, who is heading the investigation.
In one case, according to police, Ghia confessed he sent the owners of a Manhattan gallery some photographs of a temple ceiling adorned with 16 statues. The gallery owners agreed on a price, police say, and he then arranged for the statues to be stolen and sent to the buyers in New York City. In his lengthy written confession, Ghia stated that other private collectors and dealers came to India and toured deserted temples to pick out precisely what they wanted stolen for them.
Other items that Ghia allegedly stole ended up on the block in Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses, say Indian authorities. Relics listed in Christie's catalogs that police say were taken by Ghia included an 81-cm sandstone frieze with an estimated value of $200,000 to $300,000 and an 85-cm statue of the Hindu god Shiva. A Jain statue that was reported stolen on Oct. 7, 1999, turned up as Lot 135 in a Sotheby's September 2000 catalog.
There's no indication the auction houses knew the items were stolen. Responding to TIME's questions about the Ghia case, Christie's London office issued this statement: "Christie's are in contact with authorities and are helping them with their inquiries. As the investigation is ongoing, we do not have any further information to release at this time." Diana Phillips, senior vice president at Sotheby's, says, "We have not knowingly sold any items consigned by Mr. Ghia or companies affiliated with him for the past several years." Sotheby's, says Phillips, does not offer for sale "any object that we know or suspect is stolen, smuggled or looted."
The very nature of antiquities makes the issue of ownership particularly murky. Many countries now have laws banning the export of ancient treasures, and an item taken recently from a temple or a grave or a palace is, by definition, stolen—but stolen from whom? Though much of European art sold by reputable dealers tends to have a detailed provenance—a record of where and when the item was procured and how it changed hands—antiquities from the developing world are often not held to the same standards. Only a tiny percentage of stolen art is ever reported. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of artifacts have yet to be documented by overburdened cultural-relics officials, so no paper trail exists.
Furthermore, in ancient civilizations such as India and China, some spoils of war and colonialism purloined a century or two ago by invaders have gradually come to be considered the legitimate property of whoever possesses them. Many international dealers and auction houses argue that Asia's turbulent history makes it simply impossible for them to track the chain of ownership. But He from Beijing-based Cultural Heritage Watch says dealers aren't trying hard enough. "Can you imagine a Renoir suddenly appearing on the international market without any history of where it came from?" He says. "It's outrageous that nobody gives Asian art the same scrutiny." An art dealer in Hong Kong is equally blunt about the benefits of willful ignorance. "Once these goods are taken from their original source, you can't prove they were stolen," he says. "It's like they never existed at all."
Nevertheless, isolated victories do occur, as in the case of some of the figurines looted from Empress Dou's tomb. By February 2002, the Xi'an police had caught Wang Cangyan, a local dealer who oversaw the shipment of dozens of Empress Dou's figurines to Hong Kong, sneaking them through customs checkpoints by hiding them inside a truckload of new ceramics. Wang told the Xi'an police the name of a Hong Kong shop to which he had sold 32 figurines.
Packed with legitimate antique shops and those that specialize in fakes, Hong Kong's Hollywood Road is a key Asian transit point for stolen Chinese antiquities. The rarest items—especially those that are hot—are seldom displayed out front. "If someone walks in off the street and asks to see some real antiques, I'll probably show them fakes," says a Hollywood Road dealer who declines to be named. "But if they come in knowing exactly what they want and they know what the market rate is, I'll bring in the real things from my warehouse." In 2001, this dealer—who was busted a few years ago for selling an illicit item that was later impounded in the U.S.—heard about a collection of figurines stolen from Empress Dou's tomb. He says he tried to get his hands on them, but another gallery owner, just down the street, scored the statues instead. In retrospect, he says, "I'm glad I didn't get to buy them. I don't need any more trouble."
For Wang Cangyan, the dealer who had arranged the smuggling of the 32 figurines to Hong Kong, there has been plenty of trouble. He is currently serving a jail sentence, albeit significantly reduced to two years, in return for his cooperation with the authorities. As for the Hong Kong gallery that bought the figurines from Wang, it was allowed to return them quietly to the mainland in exchange for keeping its identity secret.
But several of the other figurines that were smuggled to Hong Kong proved more elusive. The Xi'an police believe they were sneaked out of Hong Kong and into Switzerland, where strict export documentation isn't required. From there, say the police, they made their way to New York City. Tang Xiaojin, the Xi'an cop charged with tracking down the figurines, discovered this by accident when he was leafing through a copy of the March 2002 catalog of Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art from Sotheby's. Flipping past treasure after treasure, Tang suddenly stopped. Lot 32, credited as belonging to "various owners," was very familiar: six charcoal gray figurines that were part of the very loot Tang had been tracking for months. They were set to go on sale in New York City in just a few days' time. "I was astonished," recalls Tang. "I never imagined they would have made it all the way to America."
Tang and his colleagues moved fast. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., dispatched a representative to the auction house's New York City office. At first, according to a Chinese diplomat, Sotheby's refused to exclude Lot 32 from auction, saying the Chinese didn't have enough proof that the items had been taken from an imperial tomb just months before. Phillips, the Sotheby's spokesperson, says it had an unequivocal written warranty stating that the owner had good title to the objects. She also noted that none of the statuettes appeared in the Art Loss Registry, an international database of stolen art, which Sotheby's itself co-founded. The only indication the auction house had that they were illicit came via a written request from China's Washington, D.C., ambassador, Phillips says. After a flurry of negotiation, the auction house pulled the items—just 20 minutes before the bidding was set to begin.
Now, more than a year later, the six statuettes have been returned to China. They're currently on show at a tatty museum on the outskirts of Xi'an in a display proudly entitled "The Special Exhibition of Returned Pottery Figures of Western Han Dynasty from America." Pointedly, each statue still has a tag from Sotheby's attached to its feet. Li Ku, vice director of the museum, rejoices in the figurines' return. "Looking at these figures, I feel like my family has come home at last," he says.
But, in truth, much of the loot from Empress Dou's tomb—and the vast majority from countless other sites across Asia—is still missing. In India, Superintendent Shrivastava is delighted to have nabbed the nation's top smuggler. But months after the momentous arrest, he has tracked down only a fraction of the relics Ghia is believed to have looted over the past three decades. Since news of the arrest was made public, three collectors have written to the police, offering to return stolen items they say they purchased in good faith. But most of the stolen treasures, still hidden inside a Manhattan loft or a Hong Kong boardroom, will likely never be recovered. "There is plenty," Shrivastava mourns, "that has been lost for ever."