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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
05/26/2010

Ancient Chinese fossils returned

WASHINGTON - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection returned a collection of pre-historic fossils to the Government of China in a ceremony at the Embassy in the nation's capital. The approximately 100 small stone slabs containing impressions of pre-historic paleovertebrates were identified during the course of routine inspections by CBP in Chicago. ICE handled the investigation that led to the seizure of the Paleozoic Era fossils.

Authentication by experts at the Field Museum of Chicago determined that the fossils were approximately 525 million years old and had scientific value. The fossils came from the oldest fossil deposit of soft tissues of animals anywhere in the world.

The ICE investigation is ongoing into the transport of these items without the required documentation and the failure to properly declare them. ICE Office of Investigations notified the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, which notified the Ministry of Land and Resources in China. The Chinese Ministry requested the return of the fossils to China.

"This collection of fossils, dating back 525 million of years, represents centuries upon centuries of life in what is now China. Although relatively inexpensive in terms of fossil trade, they are priceless to the scientific community," said John Morton, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for ICE. "ICE continues to enforce our customs laws against the trading of protected artifacts that carry clues to China's past. Though our investigation is ongoing, these artifacts are headed home, where Chinese scientists will have the opportunity to study them."

"These priceless fossils are an irreplaceable part of China's culture and history," stated Thomas S. Winkowski, Assistant Commissioner for CBP's Office of Field Operations. "CBP is committed to interdicting and disrupting the illicit trade of valuable artifacts, and ensuring they are returned to their rightful origins."

China considers these fossils cultural relics, which are not to be exported without proper written certification. Not only was Chinese law violated in the improper importing of these fossils, but international law as well.

As the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE plays a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property, art and antiquities. ICE's Cultural Property Art and Antiquities Unit and Office of International Affairs works jointly to indentify, investigate and eventually return art and cultural items to their countries of origin or rightful owners.

ICE's Cultural Property Art and Antiquities unit uses investigative authority to seize cultural property, art and antiquities if they were either illegally imported into the United States. It also investigates the illegal trafficking of artwork, especially works that have been reported lost or stolen. ICE's Office of International Affairs, through its 60 attaché offices worldwide, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations.

ICE works with experts in the field of cultural heritage, art and archeology to authenticate the items, determine their true ownership and return them to their rightful owners. Those involved in the illicit trafficking of cultural property, art and antiquities can face prison terms of up to 20 years, fines, and possible restitution to purchasers of the items.