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Buying Back China's Lost Art Treasures
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Buying Back China's Lost Art Treasures

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Buying Back China's Lost Art Treasures

Buying Back China's Lost Art Treasures
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Bronze monkey head

Among the items in Poly Corp.'s collection is a bronze monkey head statue. It once adorned a fountain at Yuanmingyuan, the former imperial summer palace. Courtesy Poly Museum hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Poly Museum

Chinese collectors and corporations are using their new wealth to buy back some of the thousands of China's art treasures that have been lost overseas, plundered in war and stolen by tomb robbers. One company has made this its specialty: the Poly Corporation, which started as an arms trading branch of China's military.

MELISSA BLOCK,host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Many Chinese businesses and collectors are using their new wealth to buy back some of the country's history. Treasures plundered in wars or stolen by tomb robbers. One company has made this its specialty. The Poly Corporation, which started as an arms trading branch of China's military. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, reporting:

Poly Plaza, the company's towering headquarters overlooks a major intersection on Beijing's east side. On the second floor is the Poly Museum, where museum assistant Hu Way(ph) shows off some of the collections gems.

(Soundbite of bells)

KUHN: There is a set of eight bronze bells in various sizes handcrafted 2,800 years ago. There's a rare ritual wine vessel from the Shang Dynasty some 3,000 years old.

Hu Way (Poly Museum assistant): (through translator) There are two dragons here on the side handles. The head on the lid is an owl. Further down we have mythical beasts with the trunk of an elephant, the head of an ox, and the feet of a sheep.

KUHN: Nearby are several bronze animal head sculptures. Poly rocked the Chinese art world when it bought them for a total of four million dollars at auctions in Hong Kong in 2000. At the time, media reported that Poly was willing to pay any price to reclaim the sculptures which French and British troops plundered from the Imperial Summer Palace in 1860. Poly Museum's curator Jiang Ying Chun is an archeologist by training. He explains Poly's motivation this way.

JIANG YING CHUN (Curator Poly Museum) (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: We thought what will Poly Corporation leave to future generations, he recalls. We decided that only these ancient Chinese works of fine art are everlasting. Chun says that Poly cut all its ties with the Chinese military in 1998. He insists that Poly buys artworks with its own corporate earnings and is not acting on the government's behalf.

JAMES MULVENON (Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis): There is a very strong motivation at the heart of this to restore China's national treasures.

KUHN: James Mulvenon is an expert on the Chinese military at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, a Washington, D.C. based think tank.

Mr. Mulvenon: I really think they're sincere. There's a lot of people who think that this is just a front. I do think it's sincere, but there are commercial benefits to being a cultural patron. I think it does, to a certain extent, take some heat off of them. Because, you know, they had a fairly nefarious past.

KUHN: Poly was created under the People's Liberation Armies General Armaments Department. It got its start selling weapons but has since diversified into real estate and cultural ventures. Its current president is He Ping son in law of the late leader Deng Xiaoping. Poly's former president Wang Jun sipped coffee with President Clinton at the White House in 1996 amid a controversy over campaign contributions by foreign interests. Earlier that year U.S. Customs officials uncovered an alleged conspiracy to import 2,000 AK-47 rifles into the U.S. Indicted in the case was Mow Bo Ping, Poly's former representive in the U.S. and former vice curator of the Poly museum. He left the U.S. before he could be arrested. Foreign museums and collectors need not worry about their collections. Museum assistant Hu Way says that for all its formidable connections Poly is not about to buy up all of China's overseas art treasures.

HU WAY: (Through Translator) As for artwork that has been lost overseas, if they were lost through illegal channels then they should come back. But if they were legitimately purchased and taken overseas by, say, businessmen or missionaries those should remain abroad.

KUHN: Past controversy seemed to have had little effect on Poly. The museum is moving this year to larger quarters across the street. The company's relations with the U.S. are apparently in good shape, too. Last year the U.S. Army approved a 29 million dollar contract for Poly to equip the Iraqi Army with Chinese made guns and ammunition. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News Beijing.

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