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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
03/11/2011

ICE and CBP officials return artifacts to the People's Republic of China

WASHINGTON - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Deputy Director Kumar Kibble and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deputy Commissioner David V. Aguilar repatriated a number of ancient Chinese artifacts seized as a result of operations by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and CBP offices in New York and Anchorage and ICE HSI in Albuquerque.

Most of the objects being repatriated today were part of Operation Great Wall, an initiative targeting illicit importations originating from the People's Republic of China. Following the signing of a bi-lateral agreement between the United States and the People's Republic of China in 2009, both countries have been working together closely to prevent the illicit trafficking of archaeological objects.

"The items we are returning to the People's Republic of China today are delicate, but tangible, ancient works of art that are an important part of China's heritage," said Kibble. "While seizing, forfeiting and repatriating these treasures is indeed reason for celebration, our long-term goal is to reduce the incentive for further destruction of ancient tombs and temples, where so many of these objects are dug up or chiseled off and pilfered."

"CBP is pleased to help return these precious antiquities of Chinese cultural history to the citizens of the People's Republic of China," said Aguilar. "CBP remains committed to working alongside our ICE HSI partners to intercept and repatriate priceless artifacts."

The artifacts being returned include:

  • 2 Northern Wei Dynasty terracotta horses - A.D. 386-535
  • Northern Qi Dynasty limestone Buddha - A.D. 550-577
  • 7 Sui Dynasty Pottery Horses with Riders - A.D. 581-618
  • Tang Dynasty Horse Sculpture - A.D. 618-907
  • Song Dynasty Bodhisattva head - A.D. 960-1279
  • Ming Dynasty Stone Frieze - A.D. 1368-1644
  • Qing Dynasty Ceramic Vase - A.D. 1616-1840

These pottery sculptures of horses and riders from the Sui and Tang Dynasties were likely buried in tombs. Having a horse was a sign of wealth, and only those of a certain rank were allowed to use them. The tombs these likely came from were therefore those of aristocrats.

While the Northern Qi Dynasty is usually considered a period of political unrest, it is known to art historians as a time when the arts flourished through interaction between Chinese and non-Chinese artisans. This particular sculpture may belong to some now-destroyed temple.

ICE HSI plays a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property. ICE HSI uses its investigative authority to seize cultural property items if they were 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 67 attaché offices worldwide, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

CBP is the nation's lead border security agency and is charged with enforcing hundreds of laws at and between our nation's 327 international ports of entry. As part of that mission, CBP enforces bi-lateral agreements and import restrictions on certain foreign cultural property and archaeological materials. CBP works closely with ICE and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to prevent the illegal trade and trafficking of cultural antiquities. CBP partners with ICE to ensure that illegally traded and trafficked antiquities are returned to their rightful owners.

ICE HSI agents undergo special training sessions funded by the State Department and held at the Smithsonian museums and research facilities before they begin working cultural property cases. Smithsonian staff provided behind-the-scenes introduction to objects from regions that are at greatest risk of looting and trafficking, as well as practical skills training in handling, photographing, recording and packing objects.

More than 2,300 artifacts have been returned to 18 countries since 2007 including paintings from France, Germany and Austria, an 18th century manuscript from Italy, and a bookmark belonging to Hitler as well as cultural artifacts from Iraq including Babylonian, Sumerian, and neo-Assyrian items.

Agencies involved in the seizure and investigation of the items being repatriated today include ICE HSI and CBP in New York and Anchorage and U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Albuquerque.

For more photos of the embassy event and the returned artifacts, go to the media gallery at www.ICE.gov.