NEW YORK --A IIan dynasty work of art recently sold in New York for $2.5 million is likely to have been stolen from the area to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam, according to an archaeology professor. The connection between the sold piece, a bronze "spirit tree" (shen shu), and one missing from the Three Gorges area was made by Professor Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, an archaeologist and art historian based at New York University. The sale was the highest price ever paid for a Chinese antiquity.
Professor Childs-Johnson, who specializes in Yangzi River archaeology, believes that the piece, sold during the March 1998 International Asian Art Fair, is one of only three fully-intact, bronze spirit trees (also known by the more popular variation, "money tree") documented by archaeologists. An October news report from a Chinese newspaper described the theft of such a money tree from the Three Gorges area.
The stolen spirit tree possibly derives from Baidicheng (White Emperor's City) in Fengjie County, a city to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. An October 1997 article in the Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekend, quotes the director of the Fengjie Cultural Relics Work Unit, Yao Jiong, as saying, "Just recently a completely intact bronze yaoqian shu (money/spirit tree) was unearthed here." He went on to describe the tree as "the number one best example in the country" and said it was sold on the black market for $25,000.
This and other reports by Chinese journalists and archaeologists provide further evidence that the theft and smuggling of relics is a direct result of the Three Gorges Project, says the International Rivers Network (IRN). Archaeologists are now in a race against time to protect the wealth of artifacts in the area not only from inundation by the dam's 400-mile long reservoir, but also from the increasingly bold and well-organized looters and smuggling rings operating in the area. "This shen shu is an exceptional work of art," and is "unique to the Yangzi river belt in Sichuan province," said Dr. Elizabeth Childs-Johnson. If it was indeed stolen, she said, "China's loss of this piece is a tragedy."
A New York Times story describes the tree as "truly eye- opening...its dozens of branches filled with minute figures, touched with a sea-blue patina giving the impression of a Christmas tree seen under water." The piece was sold to a New York art collector by Belgian art dealer Gisele Croes.
IRN recently alerted Chinese officials to the U.S. sale of the money tree. Yu Weichao, the director of conservation of cultural relics in the Three Gorges area and the director of Beijing's prestigious National Museum of Chinese History, said he is now taking steps to verify the provenance of the sold piece. By Chinese law, all relics intended to be taken out of China must be 'verified' or examined by a cultural relics bureau. Local officials working on the dam's archaeological excavations have been evasive when asked to provide a detailed description of the missing Fengjie spirit tree.
Excavated relics from these sites on the Yangzi are critical in reconstructing the little understood picture of South China's contribution to Chinese civilization, said IRN. This hope is fading with the increase of archeological looting in the dam's inundation zone.
"This potential theft is the most outrageous example of the dire situation currently facing cultural antiquities in the proposed reservoir zone," says Dai Qing, China's most outspoken critic of the dam. "The problem is that there is a complete lack of funding and not enough time for proper antiquities excavation and protection in the area."
Return to the U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water News Homepage