Last updated Feb 2022
How to export antiques from China? Is it possible? Are all antique exports banned? How does it work? Fear not, these are all questions that will be answered below.
The short (incorrect) answer is in theory only if it is:
- Made after 1911 BUT more importantly
- Not classified as Cultural property.
This is very important – we will come back to these two points shortly.
Not classified as “cultural property” is what is crucial here. 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:
- “They shall be those of which there are large numbers of replicas and which are overstocked.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, what does this mean?
As always, the devil is in the details.
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 cultural value
“Little cultural value” (at least in the eyes of the Chinese authorities), luckily, 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 almost 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 (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) the majority of items foreigners purchase are reproductions, fakes or converted items.
This small jar is probably Yuan period (1271 to 1368) which would make it at least 600 years old. Yet in many/most cases customs will see this piece as a) no longer in value for domestic preservation, b) possessing large numbers of replicas and which are overstocked and c) below the third-class.
In other words it will likely pass inspection.
Common misconceptions about exporting antiques:
A google search will turn up numerous articles on this topic with many of the repeating the following falsehoods including some very reputable sites:
- Anything made before 1911 cannot be exported (false)
- All 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)
- Anything before 1949 is considered an antique and cannot be exported.
Why the misconceptions?
Many Chinese sellers have flooded the market with fakes and copies, a problem acknowledged both inside and outside of China. Legitimate dealers struggled under a deluge of fakes being exported and directly sold from China to naïve and uninformed customers. Not only was the practice unscrupulous but it pollutes the market. Dealers knew some of the items being sold would be impossible to export as they were copies of first level cultural relics.
It was only natural that they latched onto the idea that “its impossible to export any antiques” as way to combat and delegitimize these exploitative sellers. Some of this was also from misperceptions about how the actual laws and process works in practicality.
Furniture is generally not scrutinized (at present)
All of these items are over a hundred years old. All are genuine antiques. None of them will likely cause problems with customs. Rarely is furniture flagged. For now.
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. This includes furniture. Again, if it looks like it belongs in a museum (usually classical pieces) then its likely fake or you will potentially have problems. If it looks provincial (in other words country antiques) you are less likely to encounter difficulties.
Some items are simply off-limits. Being able to export them should raise red flags. While the “line” is sometimes a bit blurry there are some fairly easily highlighted examples:
Almost all antique stone is generally prohibited. However, some exceptions may apply for very provincial common use stone, such as rough carved feeding trough for animals.
Certain architectural items
The larger the item the more difficult and the items original location (outside vs inside) can also make a difference. Signboards are a often a target of customs in some regions.
Large prominent items from certain sites
Items as from religious sites like temples or family/clan halls, tombs, parks etc are usually prohibited. This includes dated items.
Easily recognizable antiquities
The 2000 year old Han tomb model is a perfect example of an easily recognizable item which is technically cultural heritage.
Anything of this level likely would not be allowed to leave. The Zitan chair below is an example.
Its also important to note that enforcement varies per geographical region with some areas enforcing the regulations more strictly then others.
When the line is not very clear
For some items its simply a matter or logistics, workload and/or depending on the inspector & the channel used to export them. Some regions are more strict than others. During sensitive times (political anniversaries) enforcement may be stricter than other times. Some items may been deemed fake when in fact they are authentic.
- The stone figures may be deemed small enough to overlook. Or they may be flagged.
- The stone trough is round as opposed to the common rough rectangular ones. It may be flagged for this reason. Or not.
- The green Yuan-Ming offering jar may be flagged or it may be deemed unremarkable.
- Quality wood carvings are sometimes flagged. Other times they are ignored.
- Carved bricks are technically architectural items. At times they are flagged.
- A shrine of this stature is essentially “miniature architecture.” It could get flagged.
Some items fall through the cracks
When an item is genuinely antique and falls within the criteria of “should not be exported” one should not automatically assume the item is fake. There are countless reasons why an item that is genuinely antique was exported.
Again, many such items exist outside of China for a number of reasons:
- Exported before current regulations came into place:
- Exported after current regulations came into place but before they were strictly enforced.
- Were inspected but fell through the cracks (overlooked or not inspected carefully).
- Were exported but were never officially inspected (for whatever reason). While this is highly risky (think prison sentences) there are sellers that engage in such practices.
- Items were deliberately smuggled out. Smuggling occurs worldwide – not just in China.
Again – just because an item was exported in the last 20 years or so does not mean it is a fake.
Why is China so sensitive about this topic when 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.
In October 1860, at the culmination of the Second Opium War, British and French troops looted and destroyed one of the most important palace complexes in imperial China—the Yuanmingyuan. Known in the West as the “Summer Palace,” this site consisted of thousands of buildings housing a vast art collection. It is estimated that over a million objects may have been taken from the palaces in the Yuanmingyuan—and many of these are now scattered around the world, in private collections and public museums. With contributions from leading specialists, this is the first book to focus on the collecting and display of “Summer Palace” material over the past 150 years in museums in Britain and France.
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 known 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.”
Chinese authorities can take 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. (from https://www.customs.gov.cn)
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 worse) 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.
Relic Inspection Process
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 sometimes 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.
Note: ideally do not remove this seal as it is the proof the items were inspected and approved for export.
|Guangdong Cultural Relics Bureau seal||Shanghai Cultural Relics Bureau seal||Tianjin Cultural Relics Bureau seal|
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 (facilitated by the moving company), whereas for a wholesaler this will occur in the warehouse. For individuals some things may need to be transported to the relics bureau. If you are a wholesaler, paperwork will often be prepared accurately but with minimal details to avoid red flags.
Note that the Certificate of Antiquity which many exporters and forwarding agents generate can be used for import-tax reductions as in many countries, imports of antiques are tax free. However this is again, not necessarily a proper endorsement that the item is indeed antique as exporters are often not experts. For those who need proper authentication, an additional appraisal from a third party is still recommended.
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.
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.
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.
Update as of February 2022
The law has not significantly changed and most new Chinese laws deal more with the protection of cultural sites inside of China. Smuggling has been reduced under the rule of Xi Jinping.
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.
- 6403-2023 or 6401-4608
- No.6 Jianguomennei Avenue, Dongcheng District, Beijing or No. 36, Fuxue Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing
For inspections you will want to contact the Division of Cultural Heritage Market Administration (8610-6403 2017)
- 87047165、87049634, 87047165,87049634
- Guangzhou Yin Wang 1, second floor.
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- No. 10 Chaoyangmen Bei Da Jie Chaoyang District Beijing, 100020, China
- 276 Sichuan Middle Road , Huangpu District
- Tel: 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.”