Chinese ban on art exports goes to the wall

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THE CHINESE take the severest possible view of those who smuggle antiquities and art treasures out of the country - indeed, the maximum penalty is death.

Unfortunately, grave desecrations, looting and illegal excavations have reached such a pitch that the authorities have decided if you cannot beat them, join them. Officially sanctioned art and antiquities sales will, therefore, take place this autumn - the first such sales for objects predating 1795.

This October, the authorities are letting more than 2,000 items leave the country by bringing them to auction. Jewellery, carpets, furniture, textiles and other objects from every period since the Shang dynasty, dating from 1600BC, will be offered - satisfying the West's insatiable appetite, first whetted in Marco Polo's day.

A leading dealer in oriental art believes the Chinese are unlikely to sell major pieces, although there is no shortage. In fact, as he pointed out, there are so many sites to be excavated, and so few Chinese museums in which to house the treasures found, that they sometimes re-cover a tomb stumbled upon by chance.

To organise and promote the auction, the China Art and Antique Foundation has opened an office in Maastricht. Maryke van Halder, its director, said that official sales seemed the only way to stem the illicit trade. 'They had to do something. It was going too far . . .'

It is impossible to estimate how much goes missing each year. Two weeks ago, smugglers were arrested trying to remove 3,000 museum-quality items from 700 different sites. 'And that was just one province,' said Ms van Halder.

According to an Antiques Trade Gazette report, every piece will have a certificate of authenticity and be examined in advance by both Chinese and Western experts. The Chinese are making a Western-style occasion of the sales to entice dealers, connoisseurs and collectors to Peking: there will be a gala evening, daily excursions to the Forbidden City, lectures, shopping tours and silk-bound catalogues.

Smugglers never needed any of that.