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China bans looted antiques from going under hammer at mainland auction houses

China has banned the auction of antiques looted from the country throughout history in its latest regulation on cultural relic auctions.

The document, issued by the State Administration on Cultural Heritage on October 20 and released on its website on Monday, stated that all cultural relics that were stolen, illegally unearthed, smuggled or looted from China would be banned from being auctioned in the country.

It also said the Chinese government had priority in buying precious antiques.

According to the regulation, the administration can appoint state-owned relic collection agencies to procure such pieces from their consignors at an agreed price. Those artefacts would no longer be accepted for auction.

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The new regulation replaces a temporary rule on the auction of cultural relics that the administration issued in 2003, which banned the auction of antiques “with disputes regarding their right of disposition”.

The new version replaced that clause with much stronger wording that explicitly bans the auction of “historically looted Chinese relics”.

Internet commenters were quick to point out that the regulation applies only to auction houses on mainland China, while most valuable Chinese antiques are sold in overseas markets, such London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong.

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According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation, about 1.67 million Chinese relics are housed in more than 200 museums across 47 countries.

The Chinese Cultural Relics Society said China had lost more than 10 million antiques since 1840 due to wartime looting and illegal excavations.

China has in the past resorted to bidding in overseas markets to recover its lost national treasures.

In 2000, the Poly Art Museum, owned by the state-owned Poly Group, won the bidding at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions in Hong Kong for three bronze heads looted from the old Summer Palace in Beijing by British and French troops in 1960.