U.S. Returns Stolen Artifacts to China

March 7, 2019


After making its largest discovery of cultural property ever — 42,000 artifacts from around the world — at one U.S. home, the FBI has begun packing up and sending many of the items to the People’s Republic of China, where they belong. The FBI is a member of the Cultural Antiquities Task Force.

The Chinese artifacts, some dating to 500 B.C.E., had been kept in the late Don Miller’s rural Indiana home. Miller had stolen artifacts on digging expeditions in other countries and, shortly before his death in 2015, he cooperated with the FBI’s Art Crime Team and relinquished approximately 7,000 of them to the bureau.

The 361 artifacts identified as rightfully belonging to the Chinese include jewelry, vases and other art.

The FBI has worked closely with China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration to accomplish the largest repatriation of cultural items from the U.S. to the People’s Republic of China.

“The items should be displayed in China to let people have a look,” said Jun Liu, deputy consul general of the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago. At a February 28 repatriation ceremony in Indianapolis, Jun praised the cooperation between the U.S. and China.

Miller had often exhibited his collection to others. But in 2014, the FBI’s Art Crime Team discovered it and seized the artifacts Miller likely had acquired in violation of U.S. federal laws and international treaties.

The artifacts represent China’s beauty — and faith in art — but in their time with Miller were reduced to mere commodities, said Kristi Johnson, chief of the FBI’s transnational organized crime section.

Before returning them to Chinese officials, the FBI curated the cultural treasures, enlisting the help of anthropology and museum studies graduate students from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Under the guidance of their professor, Holly Cusack-McVeigh, the students inventoried and cared for the artifacts in a climate-controlled warehouse.

“It’s great [to] return them to their home countries,” said Emily Hanawalt, a student at IUPUI.

More than 10 years ago, the U.S. and China signed their first bilateral agreement to protect and preserve cultural heritage. Earlier this year in Beijing, on the 40th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and its Chinese counterparts updated the agreement to continue the preservation of art, identity and cultural heritage.

The 5-year agreement ensures cooperation on the seizure and repatriation of illegally exported cultural heritage property and on stopping pillage of archaeological sites.

Hu Bing, deputy administrator of China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration, said such cooperation shows “respect for cultural rights and national emotions of peoples from across the world.”


About the Cultural Antiquities Task Force

The FBI Art Crime Team is a member of the Cultural Antiquities Task Force (CATF). Created by the State Department in 2004 at the direction of Congress, the CATF comprises federal agencies that share a common mission to combat antiquities trafficking in the United States and abroad. Since its creation, the CATF has supported more than 95 domestic and international cultural property training programs. CATF is managed by the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center.