Who's to blame for Hamburg's fake terracotta warriors?

A curator adjusts one of the fake terracotta warriors in Hamburg.

Although there's been little development in the case of the fake terracotta warriors that were on display in Hamburg's Museum of Ethnology, a story on the affair in the latest issue of China Newsweek puts an interesting spin on things.

Few of the major players come out unscathed: the German media is a pack of tabloid sensationalists, CCTV is little better, and museum curators are either dupes, dissemblers, or outright frauds. The Chinese consulate in Hamburg and government agencies back in the country are seen as willfully ignorant if not involved in the fraud themselves. And the ironic joke that ends the piece illustrates just how little trust anyone has in how the protection of cultural heritage is handled in China.

The Mystery of Hamburg's Fake Terracotta Warriors

by Wang Yan / CN

For several weeks, the German media has brought out the big guns for an "art crime" story that may involve China. The issue of real vs. fake has already been decided, but many people still believe the truth is yet to be uncovered.

On 19 December, Hamburg, Germany, Museum of Ethnology announced that its exhibition of terracotta warriors would shut down permanently because it had displayed reproductions as genuine articles.

For the past few weeks, a storm of controversy surrounded whether the terracotta soldiers were real or fake, almost becoming a Rashomon-style affair. German interest was evidently not solely because it was "the art crime of the decade."

"China sent over fake Qin terracotta warriors"

From the start, the Germans took for granted that the Chinese government was one of the sponsors of the exhibit.

According to plan, Hamburg's terracotta warrior exhibit was to start in August, but it was delayed again and again. The museum said that the first delay was due to shipping problems, while the second delay was because of "underlying problems." Although museum director Wulf Köpke never explicitly stated it outright, the German media nevertheless connected this to the darkening political climate.

In July, Hamburg mayor Ole von Beust met the Dalai Lama at City Hall, raising protests from the Chinese government. In September, German chancellor Angela Merkel had a high-profile meeting with the Dalai Lama, testing China's limits. Sino-German relations quickly cooled. However, Beust denied any connection between the exhibit and politics.

At the end of November, German media reported, "China finally gives the green light to Hamburg Terracotta Warrior exhibit," revealing that permission had been granted to let the artifacts out of the country. On the 25th of that month, the exhibit had its grand opening under the title "Power in Death: The Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor of China."

Two days later, CCTV broadcast this piece of news on its program "News List" (全球资讯榜). "The exhibit of Qin Shi Huang's terracotta warriors in Hamburg, Germany, has formally opened at the Museum of Ethnology. The more than 100 life-size terracotta figures on display include eight authentic generals and kneeling archers and two authentic ceramic horses."

More crucially, CCTV highlighted the involvement of the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Bureau: "This exhibition is put on in cooperation with the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Bureau."

On 7 December, the exhibition's difficult life ran into further problems. Hamburger Morgenpost claimed that the eight "authentic" figures on display at Hamburg's Museum of Ethnology might be reproductions. The source of this information was one Roland Freyer, an exhibition organizer. Freyer had reported the Center of Chinese Art and Culture in Leipzig to the police for fraud.

Few people had been aware of this name before. Leipzig CCAC is actually a German exhibition organizer. Freyer claimed that he had founded this company and then left. From its founding to date, the CCAC only handles terracotta warrior exhibitions.

The exhibition in Hamburg was hosted by the Museum of Ethnology; the objects were provided by Leipzig CCAC, and there was no direct supply from the Chinese side.

Leipzig CCAC responded to the complainant immediately.

"Our Chinese partners include China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Shaanxi Province Bureau of Cultural Heritage. When the terracotta warriors left the country they had complete documentation before the could pass through Chinese customs," said Yolna Grim, spokesperson for the center. Grim also said that Freyer said that he had an exclusive contract with China that gave him sole authority to exhibit Chinese terracotta warriors in Europe until 2012. So Freyer was not only reporting the CCAC; he was also reporting the exhibitions that China had put on in Stuttgart, Nuremberg, and Erfurt.

Once the seeds of suspicion sprouted they became hard to uproot, particularly in a city known as "the heart of the media."

Doubts about the authenticity of the objects in the exhibition continued to appear in the Hamburg media. For example, when the exhibition had just opened, a seven-year-old boy saw that a few of the "authentic pieces" behind the glass were fakes; the museum's protective measures were so careless that there weren't even normal guards stationed beside the pieces.

Though they could really only be called "guesses," these reports shared the same mentality: we have our hands on a Chinese scandal.

Undeniably, German public opinion was affected by the political relationship between the two countries. Moreover, Chinese- and German-language media took up opposing positions. At the end of November, several dozen Chinese-Germans sent a criminal complaint to Hamburg's public prosecutor against the influential mainstream magazine Der Spiegel. The magazine had previously taken aim at 27,000 Chinese students studying in Germany, claiming that the majority of them were spies.

Profession of innocence from China

Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) was the first media agency that realized it ought to seek confirmation from the Chinese.

"Consulting all parties involved before making a report ought to be standard practice for a journalist. The DPA reporters called the Cultural Heritage departments of both Shaanxi Province and of the whole country. Chinese officials told them that China was not conducting any terracotta warrior exhibitions in Germany at the time. Small-scale exhibits, or even showings of reproductions, would have to be authorized by the cultural departments of the Chinese government," an informed source in Germany told China Newsweek.

This reporter also revealed that the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Bureau had told the DPA reporter that he had been very suspicious when he heard previous reports about the exhibition.

"We only learned of this when we watched the 2 December report on CCTV, and read news about it online," an employee of the Cultural Exchange Center at the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Bureau confirmed China Newsweek.

On 11 December, the day after DPA reported the Chinese response, Leipzip CCAC spokesperson Grim was invited on to appear on Das Erste's "News Today" program, one of the most well-known news programs in Germany. Grim revealed to all that the terracotta warriors on display in Hamburg were not real.

"The Center never promised Hamburg's Museum of Ethnology that the eight terracotta warriors were genuine archeological finds. The terracotta warriors on display were made of the same materials as the originals, and their appearance and measurements are identical to the real ones. So the items on displace can be called 'authentic' terracotta warriors, but they are definitely not true 'archeological finds'," Grim quibbled.

Director Köpke, on the other hand, could only use the contract and a dictionary to defend his reputation. He said that when he checked the dictionary, the language used in the contract indicated that the pieces were originals.

After the three sides presented their cases, the question of ultimate responsibility remained difficult to determine. But the German newspaper Bild ran the story under a slanted headline: "Museum Scandal: China Gave Us Fake Terracotta Warriors."

On 13 December, the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Bureau finally issued a formal statement on its website. Aside from confirming that the pieces on display in Hamburg were reproductions, it emphasized that the Bureau was "completely ignorant" of the matter and was not one of the sponsors.

Finally, the Bureau also declared that it would use the law to go after the persons responsible.

Instantly, the Cultural Heritage Bureau was accused of "pursuing accountability for political ends," because previously, "Chinese officials typically turned a blind eye to exhibitions of fake terracotta warriors."

The statement was actually intended to dispel "extremely negative effects." Chen Qianqi, director of the Cultural Exchange Center and a spokesperson for the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Bureau, said that if he were able to contact the Leipzig CCAC, he would use the law to hold the center responsible. The problem now was that the center had an invalid telephone number listed on its web page, so it was unreachable.

A Xinhua reporter discovered upon investigation that the Leipzig CCAC had disappeared from its listed address.

A Baffling Delay

An exhibition of fake terracotta warriors went on for twenty days before the Chinese cultural departments reacted, perhaps because the vast distances created unavoidable obstacles for information. But China's consulate in Hamburg should not have had that problem.

In their reports on the Hamburg exhibition, many German media outlets quoted information that came from the Chinese consulate in Hamburg. In October, the consulate told DPA that they did not know why the shipment had been delayed, but they said that they exhibition could be extended. On 11 December, after Shaanxi had already replied, Deutsche Welle quoted Köpke's words: "China's consul general has been unable to obtain precise information from Beijing."

Hence, someone raised the question, "Were it not for the DPA's reminder, would the fake terracotta warriors have continued to cheat people? Would the Administration of Cultural Heritage and China's foreign affairs officials have simply let it slide?" To people who already harbored hostility, this provided a perfect excuse. German media even hypothesized that in certain Chinese government agencies there were people "conducting business" in Leipzig and Hamburg and profiting privately through fraud.

A Mr. Cheng, who works in Wolfsburg, recalled that terracotta warrior exhibitions had been held before in many cities, and he had been suspicious on several occasions.

Reportedly, there were claims that the pieces in the first exhibition of terracotta warriors organized by Leipzig CCAC two years ago were fake.

The young intellectual Moluo once related a story he had heard from a friend in Italy.

Once, the Chinese sent a shipment of artifacts to an exhibition in a certain European country. The shipment included terracotta warriors. After the artifacts were shipped, the host country put them through authentication and determined that the terracotta warriors were new pieces, not ancient artifacts. So they voiced their protests to the Chinese, who did not make any explanation but simply shipped back the terracotta warriors that had been appraised as imitations. The Europeans figured that since they were given no explanation, perhaps all of the terracotta warriors in Xi'an were the work of modern hands.

The Hamburg affair cannot be brought to an end in silence, but it might prove to be of assistance to China's efforts to strengthen administration of its cultural heritage.

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There are currently 5 Comments for Who's to blame for Hamburg's fake terracotta warriors?.

Comments on Who's to blame for Hamburg's fake terracotta warriors?

As the article states, former terracotta warriors exhibitions (e.g the one in Markleeberg in 2005) with involved of CCAC already raised suspicions about fraud. Clearly the curators of Hamburg's Museum of Ethnology didn't made their homework when accepting a partnership with CCAC.
The CCAC's course of action must have been of deliberate deception -- it's quite laughable to dispute the differences between the words "original" and "authentic". At least in habitual German language use, these terms mean exactly the same.

Wasn't the Western art student who posed for several minutes as a terra cotta warrior inside the pit at Xi'an last year from Germany? Maybe they should have hired him to stand in Hamburg's museum.

It would be amusing to discover how many of the original warriors on display in Lintong aren't really real. I bought a life size replica warrior from the museum shop for display at my parents house in the USA and quite a few neighbors actually believe it's one of the originals; that China is literally
selling its cultural heritage to foreign buyers!

Ha! - 'Undeniably, German public opinion was affected by the political relationship between the two countries' - Are you trying to tell me that the Germans are exaggerating, maybe even the bad guys?

I am German living in China and am just smiling about the story.

Interesting idea that all warriors, even the ones in Xian are maybe made by 'modern hand' with original clay...

That's a great story. It would be fun to discover that all this Terracotta Warrior thing is just a fake as probably the golden Olympic Warriors are. But who cares?

Just returned from Xian....unaware of the controversy.

Several fellow travelers had doubts about authentic

- prevention of assistance from outside experts.

- Miraculous unearthing of varied pieces from the unexcavated Second pit.

- Clumps of weapons found unassociated with indivual warriors.

- water table enroachment today in Pit #3, must have been much higher years ago to support crops necessary for a population of 1M souls.

- complete destruction by fire impossibe in a covered site because oxygen would be depleted produce signifigance carbon remnants which could be carbon dated.

- inconceiveable that The Emporer would not use a permanent glazing paint on the warriors, giving the efforts to survive in the Afterlife.

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