Gigantic looted sarcophagus returned to China

The enormous Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) stone sarcophagus of Empress Wu Huifei (699-737 A.D.), looted from her tomb four years ago and smuggled to a buyer in the United States, has been returned to China.

The handsomely decorated sarcophagus was stolen from Wu’s tomb in southern Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, in 2006. Police didn’t even realize it was gone until they found photographs of it on a computer confiscated from a suspect in another tomb robbery. Archaeologists identified the artifact in the pictures as Empress Wu’s sarcophagus, setting the police off on an international hunt.

After two years of investigations, police discovered the sarcophagus had been smuggled out of China and sold to a businessman in the US for $1 million, police sources said.

“We contacted the businessman through mediators and told him we had to get the relic back. If necessary, we would seek help from Interpol,” said Han Yulin, head officer of the heritage investigation team of Xi’an’s public security bureau.

“After three rounds of negotiations, he agreed to return the relic to China unconditionally.”

Oh just three rounds? What a humanitarian. The sarcophagus was shipped from Virginia in March and arrived in Guangzhou a month later. It was put on display at the Shaanxi History Museum yesterday.

The part that really blows my mind is the sheer size of this beast. It’s not like Roman sarcophagi or even those big outer sarcophagi that contain pharaonic mummies. It weighs 27 tons and is 4 meters (13 feet) long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters tall. How in the name of all that’s unholy did the looters get something so gigantic out of the tomb? To say nothing of the logistics of schlepping such a massive piece across at least one continent and an ocean. What about customs? How is it possible to sneak around with a 27-ton stone coffin taller and wider than an NBA player and longer than two of them?

It just goes to show how deep a problem looting is, how adept and resourceful the criminals are.

Sarcophagus of Tang empress Wu Huifei

8 thoughts on “Gigantic looted sarcophagus returned to China

  1. This is flabbergasting! It’s incredible from start to finish. How does one steal a 27 ton anything?

    OMG. Is this proof that there is a Carmen Sandiego? Fantastic as it sounds, all the pieces fit!

  2. Getting it out of China I can understand, corruption is rife there must have been some high level local government fingerprints on this, but how did it get into the US, no one at customs became the tiniest bit suspicious? Goes to show the bigger the more audacious the fraud the easier it is to get away with it, simply because no one believes anyone could be that blatent.

    1. I would imagine even a low-level corrupt functionary could help get the behemoth out of the country. It’s so damn big and so replete with poorly-regulated mercantilism, the smuggling opportunities must be rife.

      At least at the highest levels of government, a post-Mao cultural nationalism is finally driving efforts to combat looting.

  3. I just cant feel bad for the Chinese, if they didnt even miss it. Come on, the dude in Cali wanted it way more than they did.

    1. Hmm… I’m assuming that’s a quip. Just in case it’s not, I’ll point out that it was stolen in 2006 and the theft was discovered that same year, so the Chinese missed it pretty promptly. Then they spent 4 years working like dogs to find it and get it back, so yeah, I don’t think Mr. Millionaire who threw tip money at some smugglers to score big even begins to compare.

  4. I bet they just shipped it in a container. If you can hide 20 something people in one, a 27 ton tomb shouldn’t be a problem.

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