The recovered 68 smuggled cultural relics lost in the UK have reached an ideal end due to the Chinese government's continuing efforts in transnational cultural relic repatriation over the past 25 years, said Guan Qiang, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, at the press conference.
A total of 68 recovered Chinese relics, which include works of art such as porcelains, pottery wares and bronzes dating from the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC- 476BC) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), were returned to its original homeland in October.
In February 1995, the British police notified the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom that suspected Chinese cultural relics were found during an investigation into an international cultural relics' crime ring.
“In 1995, an organised criminal network was identified. However, after a full investigation, it transpired that the criminal acts were occurring outside the UK, and therefore, they were outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police and the British criminal courts. Our hands were tied.” The Metropolitan Police was responsible for the safekeeping of these artefacts whilst the dispute was resolved. The objects were seized by British authorities for 25 years when the buyer of these relics refused to participate in negotiations for their return.
In January, London's Metropolitan Police contacted the Chinese Embassy and offered the return of the relics since the whereabouts of the buyer were unknown and the deadline for prosecution had passed, which means the relics had been classified as "no owner", showing an intention to transfer ownership back to China. During the handover ceremony for the objects in October, China's ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming gave his thanks to the UK government and Metropolitan Police for their support.
“From 1995 to 1998, with the help of the UK Metropolitan Police Service and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, we realized the handover of 3,000 pieces of cultural objects to China against all the difficulties. That was the biggest repatriation since the founding of New China.” “Today’s repatriation, after more than 20 years, offers valuable experience in diplomatic, police and judicial collaboration against the smuggling of cultural objects. It is also a contribution of China-UK wisdom and solution to international cooperation on repatriation of lost cultural objects.”
China has taken great steps in the past few years to tighten their national protective framework for cultural heritage, while also actively facilitating repatriation of foreign-held objects. Many illicitly-obtained objects remain in public and private collections in the UK, and although awareness around the ethics of public and private collections is increasing, much work still has to be done to return looted objects to their rightful owners.