China furious over theft of terracotta warrior's thumb on loan to US museum

Country angered by alleged theft at Philadelphia museum's Christmas party

Emily Shugerman
New York
Monday 19 February 2018 16:47 GMT
The 2,000-year-old statues were found in 1974 in the burial complex of China's Emperor Qin Shi Huang
The 2,000-year-old statues were found in 1974 in the burial complex of China's Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Paul Ellis/AFP)

Chinese officials are demanding punishment for the alleged theft of a thumb from an ancient terracotta warrior statue on display at an American museum.

The FBI has charged 24-year-old Michael Rohana with snapping the thumb off of the 2,000-year-old Chinese sculpture during an "ugly Christmas sweater" party at the Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia museum that is currently displaying 10 of China’s famed terracotta warriors.

The agency claims Mr Rohana walked into the exhibit through an unlocked door during the party on 21 December. He perused the dark exhibit using the light from his cell phone, then posed for a selfie with the statue in question, according to an arrest affidavit. Before leaving, he tore off the statue’s thumb as a souvenir, the affidavit said.

An attorney for Mr Rohana could not immediately be reached for comment.

Wu Haiyun, the director of the government-run organisation that loaned the statues out, criticised the Franklin Institute for being "careless" with the statues, according to CCTV.

"We ask that the US severely punish the perpetrator. We have lodged a serious protest with them," he said.

The museum said in a statement that a safety contractor had not followed proper closing procedures on the night of the party. The museum said it had conducted a thorough review of security procedures, and “taken appropriate action where needed”. The statement also noted that an internal investigation gave the FBI "the information necessary to identify the suspect."

FBI agents tracked Mr Rohana to his house in Bear, Delaware using credit card transactions and surveillance video from the night in question, according to the affidavit. The document said Mr Rohana had attended the party with five friends – one of whom said they heard him talking about the finger on the ride home. Another friend said they saw him post a photo of it on Snapchat the next day.

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Upon being confronted by agents, Mr Rohana confessed to stealing the artifact and retrieved it from his desk drawer, according to the affidavit. He has been charged with concealment of major artwork from a museum and interstate transportation of stolen property.

Mr Wu, the official from the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Centre, said the organisation would be sending two experts to the US to assess the damage, and would be making a claim for compensation.

The sculpture was one of 10 loaned out to the Franklin Institute as part of its Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor exhibition. The warriors – one of China’s biggest tourists attractions – were crafted to accompany the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. They were uncovered by workers digging a well outside Xi’an in 1974.

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