At 10:00 a.m. on October 19, 2020, against the backdrop of the severe epidemic situation in the United Kingdom, the embassy in the United Kingdom held a special online handover ceremony to receive 68 pieces/group of smuggled cultural relics returned by the Metropolitan Police of London on behalf of the National Heritage Administration of China. In the afternoon of the same day, under the escort of embassy staff, the relics arrived at Heathrow Airport. At 20:25 that night, cultural relics flew to Beijing on flight CA938.
On November 18, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage held a press conference to announce the return of this batch of cultural relics. On the same day, CCTV’s “News Network”, “Newsroom”, “Oriental Time and Space” and other columns, as well as People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, China News Agency, China Daily and other media, all reported on the return of cultural relics in a prominent page. 68 lost British cultural relics to return home” has become a hot topic on Sina Weibo, with more than 58 million views, which has aroused high public attention and heated discussion.
From losing overseas to returning to the motherland, what kind of arduous process has this batch of cultural relics gone through on the “road to home”? The story begins with a phone call received by the embassy in Britain 25 years ago.
On the morning of February 17, 1995, Yu Yu, the second secretary of the Cultural Department of the Embassy in Britain, received a call from Scotland Yard (the predecessor of the Metropolitan Police of London). The other party said that when tracking an Egyptian cultural relics smuggling case recently, it had found a large number of suspected Chinese cultural relics, and hoped to meet with the embassy as soon as possible to assist in the identification of cultural relics. The Cultural Department quickly reported the situation to the embassy. Ma Yuzhen, then ambassador to the UK, attached great importance to it and instructed the Cultural Department to meet with the police as soon as possible to understand the situation. The Cultural Department immediately contacted the heritage experts of Dongji Company to prepare for the talks. That afternoon, two British police agents came to the Cultural Department and displayed some photos of the cultural relics. After preliminary appraisal by experts, it has undoubtedly been determined to be a Chinese cultural relic. British police said that they had identified the suspect and prepared to raid. Please keep the information confidential and inform China later.
On March 10, British police launched a raid code-named “Operation Water Candle”, intercepting about 6,000 Chinese cultural relics in two ports. British Hong Kong Heritage Businessman M, British Heritage Businessman B and a British police officer were arrested. On March 31, the British police sent personnel to the embassy again to inform about the “Operation Water Candle”. According to investigation, the three suspects belong to an international cultural relics criminal group. They have long smuggled cultural relics from the mainland of China and transported them to the United Kingdom, the United States, Switzerland and other places through Hong Kong for huge profits. The British police plan to charge suspects for smuggling and stolen goods, hoping that China will send experts to Britain to identify and provide evidence for the lawsuit. In April, the National Heritage Administration sent two experts to visit Britain to conduct a preliminary appraisal of seized cultural relics together with experts from the National Museum of the United Kingdom, confirming that most of them are Chinese cultural relics, half of which are unearthed cultural relics not allowed to be exported by law.
On December 5, the National Administration of Cultural Heritage of China officially sent a letter of recourse to the British Home Office. British police said that once the suspect is convicted, the cultural relics will be returned to China, and the road of recovery looks bright and smooth. However, on April 19, 1996, the embassy in Britain suddenly learned that the Royal Prosecutor’s Office of England had officially decided not to prosecute the suspect criminally. Because according to British law, smuggling must have customs evasion to constitute, but the suspect has legally paid taxes when transported cultural relics into the United Kingdom; and the crime of selling stolen goods must be constituted, but theft occurred in China and is not under British jurisdiction. It is such legal loopholes that breed international cultural relics smuggling groups and make the UK the largest market for cultural relics, but the Royal Prosecution Service can only act in accordance with the law and cannot convict suspects.
The State Heritage Administration decided to represent China in court by experienced British lawyers, affirming China’s ownership of property. Finally, the court ruled that due to the complexity of the case, the case was transferred to the Londonshire Civil Court. The county court decided to freeze the cultural relics indefinitely, buying time for China to prepare for the lawsuit.
On February 10, 1998, after arduous negotiations, the return agreement was finally signed. On April 17, the cultural relics arrived in Tianjin Port, which is the largest recovery of cultural relics in China’s history. Since then, these cultural relics have been stored in the National Museum of China.
Time, white colt crosses the gap. Twenty-five years later, on January 13, 2020, the Cultural Department of the Embassy in Britain received an email from Agent Hayes of the Metropolitan Police. The email said that the bureau found more than 50 Chinese cultural relics during the inventory of the warehouse, which was part of the police’s seizure of Chinese smuggled cultural relics in 1995, but failed to resolve the ownership dispute in the negotiations that year. After consulting legal experts, these cultural relics can be returned to the Chinese government. British police hope to meet with embassy personnel as soon as possible to discuss the return.
Seeing the email, Yu Yu, the cultural public counselor of the embassy in Britain immediately realized that the story of China and Britain jointly cracking down on cultural relics smuggling in those years opened a new chapter in the new century. The Cultural Department quickly reported the situation to the embassy. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming attached great importance to it and instructed the Cultural Department and the office to quickly connect with the police and arrange a meeting as soon as possible.
It is understood that the cultural relics were seized in “Operation Water Candle” in 1995, but the buyer refused to participate in the negotiations. The ownership of the cultural relics is disputed and has been detained by the British police in the warehouse. Because the prosecution period is exceeded, the British police have the right to return it to the Chinese government. In view of the closure of the case, the Chinese government is required to send a letter of recourse so that the bureau can initiate the approval process.
The embassy in Britain immediately reported the situation to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage subsequently convened experts to carry out preliminary appraisal of cultural relics and formulated a letter of recourse. On March 4, the embassy forwarded the identification results and a letter of recourse to the British police. The British police accordingly reopened the case and invited embassy personnel to inspect the cultural relics on the spot to ensure that the two sides reached an agreement on the number of cultural relics. The two sides agreed to inspect on April 20, but due to the continuous deterioration of the COVID-19 epidemic, the British government announced on March 23 that the whole country was in a “lockdown” state, and the inspection was temporarily postponed. As the epidemic slowed down in the UK, on July 13, the two sides decided to restart the inspection and follow-up work.
On October 16, according to Ambassador Liu Xiaoming’s instructions, China and Britain held the transfer of cultural relics entities in the Cultural Department and completed the final inspection and inventory of cultural relics. Yu Guo, Secretary of the Cultural Department, signed a confirmation of cultural relics acceptance on behalf of the National Bureau of Cultural Heritage and agents Hayes on behalf of the Metropolitan Police of London.
After the handover was completed, Agent Sophie said with deep emotion: “It would be most appropriate to start from here and close the case at the same place today.”
On October 19, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming held an online return and handover ceremony of Chinese cultural relics at the embassy. In his speech, Ambassador Liu thanked the British government and the Metropolitan Police Department of London for their full support. He said that the return of Chinese cultural relics provided a new impetus for Sino-British cultural protection cooperation, set a new model for China and Britain to jointly crack down on cultural relics smuggling, and also injected positive energy into Sino-British friendly exchanges. Hayes, an agent of the Art and Heritage Crimes Department of the Metropolitan Police, introduced the background of the return of the cultural relics. Ridley, the international strategic policy adviser of the creative industry of the British Ministry of Digital Arts and Media, the head of the cooperation team with China, and Martin, deputy chief inspector of the Metropolitan Police, delivered speeches one after another. After the ceremony, the 25-year-old British artifacts finally set foot on their way home.
Cultural relics are witnesses and narrators of history. The process of “going home” of cultural relics has witnessed the historical steps of the Chinese nation from poverty and weakness to great rejuvenation, and tells the fate of lost cultural relics from being lost to prosperous times. In the past 25 years, two batches of lost cultural relics have “go home” from the United Kingdom, and have also witnessed the fruitful results of China and Britain’s joint cooperation and joint efforts to show swords on cultural relics crimes. It tells a wonderful story of China and Britain’s understanding and win-win cooperation.