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Authenticity and profit: the case of Chinese terracotta warriors in Germany

20 December, 2007

Reuters reports on Chinese claims that the supposedly ancient statues currently on display in the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology are fake. Some 7,000 life-size “terracotta warriors” from the reign of Qin Shihuangdi, China’s first emperor, were found in a necropolis in the 1970s and are amongst China’s most famous archaeological relics. The Museum of Ethnology mounted a small exhibit of warrior figures, horses, and other artifacts that were obtained, according to the Reuters article, through the Center of Chinese Art and Culture in Markkleeberg, near Leipzig, which in turn “said the figures had been obtained from public authorities, institutes and businesses in China.”

The Cultural Heritage Administration in Shaanxi province, where the terracotta army was excavated, announced its “outrage” that the Hamburg museum was showing reproductions and that the exhibition was “a very serious act of cheating the media and the public.” It also vaguely threatened legal action. The statues remain on exhibit but a sign announces that their authenticity is disputed and refunds have been offered to the 10,000 people who have already paid to see the exhibit.

What is interesting in this story is what is not said. The affront is said to be to the “media” and the “public” who are being “cheated.” The only time that money is mentioned is with reference to the museum-goers who are eligible for a refund. But exhibits are huge money-makers for museums, and dividing the profits between the entities that loan artifacts and foreign museums that display them is always a matter of fierce negotiation. The Cultural Heritage Administration in Shaanxi is therefore probably angry that the Hamburg museum didn’t go through them to obtain their exhibit objects, and thus is not paying them a portion of the exhibit revenues. But this interest in the profit of the museum exhibit is veiled and outrage is instead expressed on behalf of the museum-goers who were denied authenticity. Perhaps this is because openly admitting to their pecuniary interest in the exhibit of Chinese artifacts would somehow detract from the moral outrage being expressed by the Cultural Heritage Administration. Note how money seems to sully the keepers of cultural heritage, even as it clings to the objects that they keep.

L.L. Wynn

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Third Tone Devil permalink
    2 January, 2008 2:05 am

    I actually saw this exhibit (or a similar one) two years ago in Berlin, where it received a lot of publicity though it was quite obviously fake. The exhibition looked and felt more like a panopticum/theme park than an archaeological exhibit. At the time I was a bit surprised at the lack of clear information that these were copies, but then thought that it was so obvious that such information wasn’t needed. Also, all explanations were clearly written by the Chinese organisers. I am really surprised that it has attracted a scandal this late in the day.


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