Smugglers eye underwater treasures

By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-04-24 06:58

Foreign smugglers and antiques raiders are using sophisticated salvage equipment to steal China's underwater treasures, an investigation by the Cultural Heritage Administration has found.

In China's territorial sea, there are thousands of sunken ships carrying ancient treasures, mostly priceless porcelain.

Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, told China Daily that the illegal foreign salvage ships were often equipped with the most advanced technology, in contrast with rudimentary ships and equipment used by Chinese archaeologists and conservationists, who are trying to protect China's underwater heritage.

Smuggler activities have been particularly heavy over the last two years.

The relics are traded on the international waters beyond China's maritime boundaries before they are shipped to markets worldwide, many to the United States.

Besides underwater heritage artefacts, cultural items from ethnic minority groups, such as costumes and musical instruments, are also a favorite among international dealers and smugglers, Shan said.

The Chinese government has recovered a "great number" of cultural heritage items stolen from the country in the past few decades, he said without elaborating.

China has signed agreements with four countries Peru, the Philippines, India and Italy on the protection and recovery of cultural heritage.

The first one, signed with Peru in 2000, has ensured "effective cooperation" as both countries now share substantial intelligence on stolen relics.

Shan's administration yesterday invited Luis Chang, the former Peruvian ambassador to China, to be a consultant to China's cultural heritage protection.

"We want more international help in the protection and recovery of Chinese cultural heritage and we'd like to sign bilateral agreements with more countries," Shan said.

China's underwater heritage has been pursued by art collectors and dealers since the beginning of 2005, when about 15,000 pieces, mainly blue-and-white porcelain about 300 years old, were found in a 13.5 meter sunken ship off the coast of East China's Fujian Province.

Previously, rock carvings were largely targeted in the illicit heritage goods trade, but activities have been curtailed since the Chinese government took more effective protective measures.

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