Home > Exhibitions > Current Exhibitions > Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan > Promoting the protection of Chinese cultural heritage

Promoting the protection of Chinese cultural heritage

When were the sculptures removed from Xiangtangshan?
The objects shown in this exhibition were taken from Xiangtangshan between 1910 and about 1930. The majority passed through the hands of the Chinese art dealer C. T. Loo (Loo Ching-tsai, 1880–1957), who had commercial operations in Beijing, Shanghai, Paris, and New York. Other dealers handling these sculptures included Edgar Worch (1880–1972), based in Paris, and Yamanaka & Company, located in Kyoto and New York.

Museums in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere purchased these objects or received them as gifts between 1913 and 1952, many decades before international laws were enacted to promote the protection of cultural patrimony. The museums have conserved and shared them with the public for more than half a century.

What policies and regulations are now in place to protect sites like Xiangtangshan?
In 1970, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed the first international convention to protect cultural property and prohibit its illicit sale. Along with many other countries, China, the United States, and the United Kingdom ratified this agreement, which forbids the acquisition or display of works illegally removed from their nation of origin after 1970.

The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property requires its States Parties to take action in these main fields:

  • Preventive measures: Document inventories, export certificates, monitoring trade, imposition of penal or administrative sanctions, educational campaigns, etc.
  • Restitution provisions: Per Article 7 (b) (ii) of the Convention, States Parties undertake, at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such cultural property imported after the entry into force of this Convention in both States concerned, provided, however, that the requesting State shall pay just compensation to an innocent purchaser or to a person who has valid title to that property. More indirectly and subject to domestic legislation, Article 13 of the Convention also provides provisions on restitution and cooperation.
  • International cooperation framework: The idea of strengthening cooperation among and between States Parties is present throughout the Convention. In cases where cultural patrimony is in jeopardy from pillage, Article 9 provides a possibility for more specific undertakings such as a call for import and export controls.

Approved in 1970, the Convention was signed by the United States in 1983 and accepted by China in 1989.

In 2008, the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors reaffirmed the importance of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the significance of the 1970 threshold date for the application of rigorous standards governing the acquisition of archeological material and ancient art.

For more information see
1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
2008 Report of the AAMD Subcommittee on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art

What work is underway to preserve Xiangtangshan?
While they are still active sites of Buddhist worship, the Xiangtangshan caves are now managed by the Fengfeng Mining District Office for Protection and Management of Cultural Properties. This supervisory government agency—responsible for protecting, documenting, and restoring the caves—actively contributed to this exhibition.

What is "provenance research"?
To ensure conformance with the 1970 UNESCO Convention, U.S. museums determine the past ownership of objects that they show through meticulous research. Researchers use a variety of sources, such as news reports, sale records, and in some cases—such as Xiangtangshan—archival photographs of objects in situ. Tracing the provenance of collections and objects on loan is a fundamental aspect of American museum curatorial work.

For more information about the innovative research undertaken by the Freer and Sackler visit our Provenance Research webpage

Standing Bodhisattva. Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer, F1968.45