BEIJING, Jan. 24-- A set of stamps featuring the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, who had spent more than 140 years roaming the world, is now circulating around China.
The stamps have pictures or sketches of the animals' heads. They are copies of a dozen copper sculptures that were stolen from a palace in Beijing.
The stamps were issued by the China National Philatelic Corp last Tuesday.
Zhang Yongnian, director of the non-government Cultural Relics Recovery Fund, says the stamps release illustrates the Chinese public's increasing concern about the recovery of cultural relics that flowed overseas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The sculptures stood around a fountain at the Yuanming Yuan(Old Summer Palace), which was built in 1760.
Lost when invading British and French troops looted the palace in 1860, the copper sculptures returned to the spotlight in 2000 when three of them appeared at auctions in Hong Kong.
The China Poly Group bought the copper sculptures of the ox, monkey and tiger for 33 million Hong Kong dollars(US$4.2 million) at the two auctions, which were held by New York-based Sotheby's and London-based Christies.
The"swine head" was the fourth to return home safe and sound, as the China Cultural Development Fund bought it with money bestowed by Hong Kong businessman Stanley Ho in 2003.
Photos of the four recovered sculptures were printed on four of the 12 stamps, while artistic renderings of those still missing were used for the remaining stamps.
"It's a pity we don't have images of the eight missing sculptures, but it also reminds people to work harder to retrieve the other treasures that have been stolen, to help the 12 animals reunite on their homeland," said Zhang.
Jiang Yingchun, the director of the Poly Art Museum who had been attempting to track down the sculptures since 2000, said:"It is still doubtful that the 12 will actually be reunited...as some of them may have been destroyed."
The swine was given to the museum in 2003.
"Like other ancient civilizations, China has seen many cultural relics disappear overseas during its past," said Zhang.
In 2002, the Chinese Government established a special fund for purchasing Chinese cultural relics from overseas.
Its first purchase, of the Yanshan Ming(Record of Yanshan) from Japan, came in the same year and cost 29.99 million yuan(US$3.6 million). It is a calligraphy work of Mi Fu(1050-1107), one of the greatest calligraphers in the Song Dynasty(960-1279).
After the purchase, Fan Shiming, then the director of the China Cultural Heritage Information Consultation Centre, said:"The goal is to get back as many national treasures as possible, and as quickly as possible. The efforts are in line with the rapid development of the Chinese economy and the passage of the new Cultural Relics Law."
Since then, however, there have been debates over whether taxpayers' money should be used to buy back such expensive artworks one by one.
But insiders say the authorities have started to believe that the preservation of historical sites is much more important than buying stolen works, as many of the sites are under threat from bulldozers and robbery, for instance.
"We still have opportunities to recover relics from foreign collections in the future, but we may have little opportunity to rescue historical sites if we don't take urgent measures," said Du Jinpeng, a researcher with the Archaeological Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
But it seems the public, including entrepreneurs, are warming to the idea of bringing stolen works home, said Zhang.
Hong Kong businesswoman Alice Cheng showed her intentions in 2002 by buying a famille-rose enameled vase for a world record price of HK$41.5 million(US$5.32 million).
Purchased from a foreign collection during a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong, Cheng donated it to the Shanghai Museum a year later.
Over the past few years, many overseas collectors have been selling cultural relics, including Chinese treasures, because of varied factors, such as the regional economic regression, said Fan.
(Source: China Daily)