U.S. returns stolen artifacts to China

After making its largest discovery of cultural property ever — 42,000 artifacts from around the world — at one U.S. home, the FBI has begun packing up and sending many of the items to the People’s Republic of China, where they belong.

The Chinese artifacts, some dating to 500 B.C.E., had been kept in the late Don Miller’s rural Indiana home. Miller had stolen artifacts on digging expeditions in other countries and, shortly before his death in 2015, he cooperated with the FBI’s Art Crime Team and relinquished approximately 7,000 of them to the bureau.

Three photos of Chinese artifacts on a table (© Sam Riche)
Some of the artifacts found in an Indiana home that have been returned to China (© Sam Riche)

The 361 artifacts identified as rightfully belonging to the Chinese include jewelry, vases and other art.

The FBI has worked closely with China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration to accomplish the largest repatriation of cultural items from the U.S. to the People’s Republic of China.

“The items should be displayed in China to let people have a look,” said Jun Liu, deputy consul general of the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago. At a February 28 repatriation ceremony in Indianapolis, Jun praised the cooperation between the U.S. and China.

Man and woman shaking hands next to table with documents as others look on (© Sam Riche)
Wen Dayan of China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration shakes hands with the FBI’s Kristi Johnson after signing documents transferring artifacts to China. (© Sam Riche)

Miller had often exhibited his collection to others. But in 2014, the FBI’s Art Crime Team discovered it and seized the artifacts Miller likely had acquired in violation of U.S. federal laws and international treaties.

The artifacts represent China’s beauty — and faith in art — but in their time with Miller were reduced to mere commodities, said Kristi Johnson, chief of the FBI’s transnational organized crime section.

Before returning them to Chinese officials, the FBI curated the cultural treasures, enlisting the help of anthropology and museum studies graduate students from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Under the guidance of their professor, Holly Cusack-McVeigh, the students inventoried and cared for the artifacts in a climate-controlled warehouse.

“It’s great [to] return them to their home countries,” said Emily Hanawalt, a student at IUPUI.

Men wearing gloves handling cultural artifacts (© Sam Riche)
Paul Kriley (center) and Josh Ramirez (right) pack artifacts to send them back to China. (© Sam Riche)

More than 10 years ago, the U.S. and China signed their first bilateral agreement to protect and preserve cultural heritage. Earlier this year in Beijing, on the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and its Chinese counterparts updated the agreement to continue the preservation of art, identity and cultural heritage.

The 5-year agreement ensures cooperation on the seizure and repatriation of illegally exported cultural heritage property and on stopping pillage of archaeological sites.

Man being interviewed by reporters holding microphones and cameras (© Sam Riche)
Hu Bing speaks with reporters at the cultural repatriation ceremony. (© Sam Riche)

Hu Bing, deputy administrator of China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration, said such cooperation shows “respect for cultural rights and national emotions of peoples from across the world.”

This article was written by freelance writer Andrea Vega Yudico.