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Tomb Raiders: Chinese art news, June 19-25

June 25, 2010

Stone sarcophagus of imperial consort Wu Huifei (699-737), Shaanxi History Museum

On June 17, the eighth century sarcophagus of imperial consort Wu Huifei 武惠妃 (699-737) went on display at the Shaanxi History Museum. As the Tang emperor Xuanzong’s 玄宗 (r. 712-756) favorite consort before Yang Guifei 楊貴妃 (719-756), Wu commanded a high court position as the emperor’s favorite – even above the empress. Upon her death, Wu was granted a richly appointed tomb decorated with colorful murals. Her sarcophagus is decorated with relief carvings of colorful flowers as well as plump female figures that exemplify the Tang aesthetic of feminine beauty. The tomb and the sarcophagus together add to our understanding of High Tang burial culture, painting, architecture, and court life – but the sarcophagus did not arrive at the museum directly from the tomb.

In 2005, the 27-ton stone sarcophagus was looted from Wu’s tomb in the Jingling Mausoleum. After receiving a tip about the looting in 2006, the Xi’an police began a three-year search for the piece that led them first to a gang of traffickers headed by Yang Bin, and then to an American antiques dealer who had bought the piece for US$1m. The sarcophagus was returned to Xi’an in April, the first State-level relic that Xi’an police have recovered from a foreign country through legal processes.

Interior of Cao Cao's (155-220) tomb. Photo permission of the Henan Cultural Relics Bureau.

Wu’s sarcophagus is a rare example of looted works that have been successfully recovered. But this is a pyrrhic victory: for all that has been gained by the return of the relic, the original tomb context and its full archaeological expression of life and art in the eighth century are irrecoverable. Tomb raiding itself is not news, but lately tomb raiding in China has increased dramatically together with the rising demands of Mainland collectors. No tomb is immune: despite all the news last week about the “official opening” of Cao Cao’s tomb, reports have emerged that the tomb had already been looted several times over.

To combat tomb raiding, Cornell University professor Magnus Fiskesjo suggests that the most effective approach would be appealing to the collectors’ morality. This is only one of many possibilities, from raising public consciousness to increasing government oversight. (Regarding government oversight, for the moment let’s leave aside the controversial issue of Tibetan collector/businessman/philanthropist Karma Samdrup’s 15-year conviction for tomb raiding.) But with the cases of high-profile tombs like those of Wu Huifei and Cao Cao, the question of how best to curb and prevent tomb raiding is becoming increasingly more pressing. As Fiskesjo himself says, it is a question that only the Chinese can answer.


*New regulations on tourist statues of Mao made for an interesting week in sculpture.

*Weekly news from the imperial gardens: restorations at the Yihe Yuan 頤和園 (Summer Palace) and imperial ceramics at the Yuanming Yuan 圓明園 (Old Summer Palace).

*Zhang Zeduan’s 12th-century masterpiece Going Upriver at the Qingming Festival (Qingming Shanghe Tu 清明上河圖) has been digitized in an interactive display at the Palace Museum

*Contemporary painter Gao Minglu defines “maximalism” in a new exhibition.

*Art news from Shanghai: Shanghai-style modern painting on display, Xu Bing’s “Phoenix Project” at the Shanghai Expo.

*PLA artist Qu Zhi styles himself a psychological realist painter in the traditions of Edvard Munch and Lucian Michael Freud.

*Although Sotheby’s London Impressionist and Modern sales were largely uninspiring, Chinese art sales were strong at Bonhams and Butterfields in San Francisco this week, and are expected to remain so in the upcoming Taiwan sales.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. arty permalink
    June 26, 2010 1:35 pm

    interesting article

  2. Martin B. permalink
    July 1, 2010 3:34 am

    Thanks for this, Kristina. Well done. The whole excavation of the so-called Cao Cao’s tomb is quite troubling — from start to finish. The head of the excavation team is a nice person with lots of experience in the field in small-scale excavations in Shaanxi. However, for this potentially important project he was not up to the task, and so the excavation design he implemented was flawed and carried out in a less than perfect fashion. Note the photos in the media that show the open-pit mining style pit that was dug — entirely inappropriate given the fact that it erased evidence of looting, not to mention the original interment episode. Thus we are left with this mess that only adds to doubts as to whether this was actually Cao Caos’s tomb. Pity.

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