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