China’s Exporters Smuggle Antiquities as Cheap Knockoffs

The Meiyintang Chicken Cup Courtesy Sotheby's.


Chinese smugglers are hoodwinking authorities by declaring valuable antiques to be of minimal value during the exporting process, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. A Sotheby’s Institute of Art masters student has studied import records from the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, or Comtrade, from 2000 to 2012, and found a nearly $1.4-billion gap between declared values on export records from China and US import records.

According to Alice Lovell Rossiter, Chinese jades, porcelain vases, and classical paintings are routinely valued at least twice as much as Chinese export records would lead one to expect once imported to the US. There they are likely sold on the secondary market.

“Objects over 100 years of age are misclassified in order to avoid scrutiny by Chinese export officials, then reclassified properly when brought to the United States,” reads Rossiter’s master’s thesis. “I found that smuggling of cultural heritage items is rampant.”

Allegedly, imported art is similarly mislabeled to avoid incurring the high tax on fine art. Rossiter’s paper also describes a “money-laundering scheme… created through purchasing art outside of China, then shipping the object marked with a low value back into the country. Then the object is either held as a store of value or sold for cash within China’s borders.”

Although Rossiter’s findings suggest that such tricks are fairly common, the Meiyintang Chicken Cup, the so-called Chinese holy grail, which recently made news when it was auctioned by Sotheby’s for a record $36 million, was presumably not smuggled.

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