Guide to relic inspection certificates, customs documents and export requirements for antiques

“If I purchase a genuine antique while in China, will I be able to export it back to my home country?”


China customs wax seal

wax seal on a packed cabinet

The short answer is only if it is A) made after 1911 and more importantly B) not classified as Cultural property. According to the official Chinese law on the Protection of Cultural Relics, before an item may be exported (including items which have either been “passed down from former generations” or simply found/unearthed) it must meet the following criteria:

  1. “They shall be those of which there are large numbers of replicas and which are overstocked.
  2. They shall be those unearthed during archaeological excavation which, after the completion of the tasks of scientific research, are no longer in value for domestic preservation.
  3. They shall be those which, in addition to satisfying the conditions set forth in items (1) and (2), are strictly below the third-class* (inclusive) as specified in the classified criteria of assessment for museums formulated by the State.
  4. In assessing cultural relics to be exported, any objects whose authenticity is hard to determine at the moment or disputable shall not be exported for the time being so that the outflow of important cultural relics out of carelessness can be avoided.”

In practical terms, this means that:
  • That not all pieces are treated equally: Certain items will be considered more valuable to the countries heritage then others.
  • Some items may indeed be antique but are nevertheless seen as of little value (in the eyes of the Chinese authorities): Luckily, this tends to mean Chinese provincial antiques which most non-Chinese prefer.
  • When in doubt, play it safe if you are a customs inspector: This means inspectors have little motivation to err on the side of leniency.
  • First and second class antiquities have a zero chance of being legally exported. One rule of thumb is, if it looks like it belongs in a museum, then either its a fake or you likely have major problems. Fortunately the majority of items foreigners purchase are reproductions, fakes or converted items.


Common misconceptions about exporting antiques:
  • Anything made before 1911 cannot be exported (false)
  • Screens and carvings cannot be exported (false)
  • Tibetan items cannot be taken out of the country (false)
  • No antiques can be taken outside of china (false)
  • Cultural products of minorities made 1949 or earlier cannot be exported (false)


chinese porcelain jug with lid
(click to enlarge)

Beautiful Chinese country antique porcelain ginger jar with the original lid. Perfect condition. Most likely exportable without trouble.

chinese cobolt blue porcelain cup

(click to enlarge)

Classical cobalt blue porcelain bowl with original period mark on the bottom. May have problems exporting but not necessarily.

Its important to note that, Chinese classical antiques are generally subject to increased scrutiny whereas Chinese country antiques tend to be much easier to export. With that said, at present furniture is generally not scrutinized


low coffee table, kang table from shanxi chinese Qing Dynasty table
(click to enlarge) (click to enlarge)
Beautiful Chinese country antique low “kang table” from Shanxi provinceexportable Beautiful Chinese classical antique low “kang table” from Shanxi province – exportable


Problem items

These items will likely raise red flags:

Chinese antique bronze bell yuan dynasty stone statue
Large iron bell / bronze bell Yuan dynasty stone statue
Han dynasty model home chinese pailou doorway
Han dynasty model home Complete “pailou” door
antique signboard
Antique signboard Finely carved hardwood architectural carving

Its also important to note that enforcement varies per geographical region with some areas enforcing the regulations more strictly then others.


Why is China so sensitive about this topic? Other countries allow antique exports…

During the opium wars (Late Qing Dynasty 1839-1842), countless relics were looted, with many remaining outside of China today often showing up at places like Christies Auction House. The government today considers this to be daylight robbery. Then, between 1911 and 1945 before the founding of the PRC, antiques flowed from the Liuli Chang market in Beijing, where French, British, German and Jjapanese buyers frequented. In more recent times, during the disastrous period in Chinese history known as the cultural revolution, countless antiquities, furnitures, porcelains and works of art were looted and/or destroyed by the red guards. And even today, items are still frequently stolen from museums and ancient murals have been hacked away from grottos.

Artifact smuggling reached its peak during the 80ies and 90ies and though it has died down somewhat now, it still persists. For years Hong Kong’s famed strip of art and antique outlets on Hollywood Road has been ground zero for smuggled antiques. In fact, according to this article in the Taipei Times, some collector purchase antiquities as a way to way to launder money. China has stated its aim to reclaim as many of these items as possible and has even requested assistance from the United States under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) though this request has yet to be addressed. Foreigners continue to get caught up in this as well, and according to the shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post, a 62 year old Japanese man was recently sentenced to life in prison for smuggling of antiques.
There are the domestic aspects at play here too. There is a Chinese saying which, (to paraphrase) translates roughly into “If you want to get rich, then start digging” which is probably why according to some estimates, 300,000 to 400,000 tombs have been raided in China in the last thirty years of “opening and reform.” Grave robbing remains a problem and Chinese peasants have been know to even use dynamite to get at artifacts. Unemployed peasants see not history, but rather cold hard cash. A case in 1996 in Fengcheng City of Jiangxi Province talks of 199 tombs looted by 187 different people. Even government workers themselves are sometimes in on the action, with a cultural relics official in Hebei Province by the name of Li Haitao being arrested and sentenced to death for theft of “first grade relics.”


guandong cultural relics customs deal

shanghai customs seal

tianjin customs seal

Guangdong Cultural Relics Bureau seal Shanghai Cultural Relics Bureau seal Tianjin Cultural Relics Bureau seal
For even more photos of customs marks, visit Gotheborg’s page dedicated to Jian ding approval seals.

Chinese authorities cantake some small comfort, in knowing that non-Chinese artifacts in China are not always safe either as was the case with a precious Maori carving from Canterbury University which was stolen during a recent visit to Beijing. Nor can one miss a certain irony to all this, as China is said to be one of the biggest buyers of poached and smuggled ivory.


So how do I export the antiques I have purchased?

The antiques purchased or given as gifts in China should not be exported without the advanced declaration to the Customs and the assessment and export permit issued by the Committee of Cultural Relics Administration at the provincial level. When the antiques are to be shipped abroad, it is requested to present to the Customs the export permit stamped with sealing wax. (


According to Chinese law, a relic certificate is required to export anything pre-1949. Items which are pre-1795 items which are not exportable at all. And more recently the government has announced it intends to push this date forward and ban exports of all antiques dating before 1911.** The first step is to determine if the item is considered a cultural relic and if so, how does it stack up against the criteria above. This is the purpose of the relic inspection.
Relic inspection, is the process in which individual items are inspected and cleared by a customs officer, before being either carried out in luggage or packed into the shipping container. If you have purchased antiques, antique looking restored furniture or any items that might be seen as old (If the item looks as if it could be real, even if it is fake or not is irrelevant – it still needs to be inspected), you must have a relic inspection performed and an antique export certificate issued by the Antiques and Relics Bureau prior to leaving the country. Otherwise your item could be confiscates at the airport or in the case of shipped items, your entire shipment may be detained by Customs for a thorough inspection at the port resulting to delay, demurrage and other additional fees.


This antique signboard was rejected by China customs on multiple occasions over the period of a year and a half.
This antique signboard was rejected by China customs on multiple occasions over the period of a year and a half.


Depending many different factors, “Relic Inspection” can be either a necessity, a simple formality, or a major headache.. There is however, no hard and fast rule and customs agents can at any time delay a shipment. If the inspection is only cursory as is sometims the case, items may be give only brief glance before adding the “official” stamp – often in the form of a red wax seal imprint. For exporters and wholesales this is more frequently the case. If the pieces are permitted for export, a wax seal will be placed on each item, typically on the side, underbelly or the back. Typically this inspection is facilitated in part by the export agent and usually occurs on site before actual packing. For an individual, this may mean their home, whereas for a wholesaler this will occur in the warehouse. If you are a wholesaler, paperwork will often be prepared with minimal details to avoid red flags. The Certificate of Antiquity can also be used for import-tax reductions as in many countries, imports of antiques are tax free.

Note: do not remove this seal as it is the proof the items were inspected and approved for export.


A certificate of antiquity used by exporters
A certificate of antiquity used by exporters


Generally the rule of thumb with customs is, the smaller the package the more strict they are with inspections and paperwork and the more time it takes to process. A full container is often easier to ship out then a small Fedex box with product samples. The most difficult is sometimes a sample, hand carried in your luggage. Though containers as well can sometimes be subjected to just as much scrutiny. A lot of this also depends on the type of antiques. Furniture for example, is often treated very differently then say porcelain or ceramics.Its also worth noting that since early 2008, customs seems to have gotten a lot more finicky and we have had trouble with items such as carved screens and old signboards. Some comfort can be taken in that many items foreigners believe to be genuine antiques are in fact fakes.

If you hand-carrying items out via the airport or train, you will need to declare them.
If you hand-carrying items out via the airport or train, you will need to declare them.

The process has several purposes ranging from the opportunity to levy a fee to preventing cultural treasures from leaving the country in mass (IE items that are dated prior to 1795). Some have said that the whole term of relic inspection could be considered extremely ambiguous in that it is common in the industry to simply list all items as “antique.” Considering the cursory glance items are sometimes given during inspection, it would be difficult to accurately determine if an item is antique or not during the relic inspection. Maybe for this reason we have had brand new items confiscated – our guess is the inspector was either over zealous or maybe even simply liked them and wanted them for his home.
Therefore, it is important to understand that relic inspection in this regard, can accurately be described as “red tape.” Regardless of what any factory may tell you, it is impossible to export furniture from any major port in China without the pieces first undergoing some sort of “relic inspection.” “Not having a relic certificate is a huge risk. Customs can seize and search a whole shipment if a relic certificate is not in order.


What about bringing in antiques into the country?

The key here is declaring them in advance and retaining all detailed paperwork.

If the consular post, its members and the accompanying spouse and underage children wish to bring in precious antiques, gold, silver and their artifacts that are prohibited or restricted from exporting by the Chinese laws and regulations, they must present a list thereof and declare to the Customs. With the original Customs declaration form, such articles will be released by the Customs when they are to be brought out of China later.



If you bring antiques into the country and plan to take them back out with you you will need to declare them on entry.
If you bring antiques into the country and plan to take them back out with you you will need to declare them on entry.


I would also recommends bringing additional documentation for future reference to be used when taking the items back out with you. Some suggestions might copies of your original purchase receipts, clear photos of the items outside China, before they were brought in. If the items are cleared on entry make sure to save all information including the date, who approved it and where it was approved. If they are not hand carried and brought in via container, make sure the items are specifically noted on your shipping documents. Seals and chopped documents will be much more useful then a few hand written notes.
Warning: If you really do own tang dynasty pottery, a 700 year old scroll painting or any other genuine antiquity, it is not advised to bring it into the China as it can be seized and Customs officials do regularly confiscate items at ports of entry and exit.


Useful numbers

For wholesale and container customers, ACF China will facilitate this process. On a case by case basis we can also assist individual buyers with arranging this as well. Beijing Municipal Administration of cultural Heritage

  2. 6401-4608
  3. No.6 Jianguomennei Avenue, Dongcheng District, Beijing,

For inspections you will want to contact the Division of Cultural Heritage Market Administration (8610-6403 2017) Guangdong Foreign Affairs Office

  • 8704716587049634, 87047165,87049634
  • Guangzhou Yin Wang 1, second floor.
  • E-mail:

State Administration of cultural Heritiage

  • No. 10 Chaoyangmen Bei Da Jie Chaoyang District Beijing, 100020, China

Heritage Management Committee of the Shanghai Municipa Government

  • 201 Renminlu Shanghai, China
  • Tel: (021) 63580340 Fax: (021) 63720063



* Relics are divided into grades. Relics are divided into grades. In 1987 the Ministry of Culture published a circular, “The Ranking and Standard of Cultural Relics,” to provide guidance in determining grade for purposes of the CRPL. This system largely repeats the definitional language of the CRPL. Grade One relics are symbolic of Chinese culture and rare; Grade Two have “important” historic or scientific value, but are “widely found;” Grade Three are of lesser importance and include “important relics ‘with certain defects’.” In 1992 the State Bureau of Cultural Relics promulgated the Detailed Rules for the Implementation of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics [*PG205](Detailed Rules). These rules divide relics into “precious” (which includes Grades One, Two, and Three) and “ordinary.” It is important to note that this essentially administrative process of grading can have repercussions for criminal penalties. In the case of stolen relics, grading occurs when the relics are seized.

** The government has announced a ban on exports of all antiques dating before 1911 in a bid to curb the outflow of priceless art treasures, the China Daily reported on Wednesday. An existing ban affects relics made before 1795 but the date will be pushed forward to 1911, the final year of the Qing Dynasty and the end of imperial China.

*** The request concludes by seeking “import restrictions on categories of pillaged archaeological material from the Paleolithic Period to Qing Dynasty including, but not limited to: • Metals – bronze, gold, and silver vessels, sculpture, utensils, jewelry, coins, weapons, and armor • Ceramics – stoneware and porcelain vessels, sculpture, jewelry and architectural elements • Stone – vessels, sculpture, weapons, utensils, jewelry, architectural elements • Painting and calligraphy – on wood, paper, silk, stone, fresco • Textiles – silk clothing, hangings, furnishings • Lacquer, bone, ivory and horn objects, including inscribed materials • Wood and bamboo objects, including inscribed objects.”

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4 Comment

  1. […] their contracts. Fees will typically be based on the container size and include customs inspection, relic inspection, packing, loading and anything else which is needed to get your order out. Be aware of additional […]

  2. John says:

    This is extreemly helpful information.

  3. David says:

    This probably the best article and most accurate I have seen written on this subject as it is objective and factual. There are too many “urban myths” circulating about this.

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