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China cracks down on illegal trade of cultural artefacts

Government tightens rules banning the auction of looted objects on mainland China

China has tightened its laws banning mainland auction houses from selling artefacts looted from the country. The new regulations, issued by the State Administration on Cultural Heritage on 20 October, appear to renew China’s commitment to fighting illicit trafficking. China ratified the 1970 Unesco convention prohibiting the sale of stolen cultural property in 1989.

The rules replace a temporary order applied in 2003, which banned the auction of cultural relics “with disputes regarding their right of disposition”, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. The new clause stipulates that auction houses on mainland China cannot sell “historically looted Chinese relics”.

The Chinese government also now has priority in buying such objects, according to the report. Under the new rules, state-owned collection agencies have the right to acquire for a set price artefacts that do legally make it to auction. Other Chinese artefacts that are banned from being auctioned include those owned by government sectors, the military and private museums.

However, those in the trade point out that the new regulations will have no impact on overseas auctions. In 2009, a Chinese bidder famously sabotaged the auction of two 18th-century bronze animal heads by refusing to pay after “buying” them at a Christie’s sale in Paris. The rat and rabbit statues, seized from Beijing's Summer Palace 150 years ago, belonged to the late fashion designer Yves St Laurent and had been cleared for sale by the French courts. In 2013, the French billionaire François-Henri Pinault, who privately owns Christie’s, voluntarily returned the bronze heads to China.

According to the South China Morning Post, China has lost more than 10 million artefacts since 1840 due to wartime looting and illegal excavations.