What is authentic? What is original? What is fake? What is a replica? Can you answer those questions? Ever since an exhibition in a Hamburg museum, which featured eight real terracotta warrior statues from the world famous tomb of China’s emperor Qin, was closed down in December 2007, these questions are not purely academic any more.

Emperor Qin

Qin Shi Huangdi was China’s first emperor, who first united the country. Upon his death in 210 BC, he was buried along with an army of 8,099 larger-than-life soldiers and horses, made from terracotta. They were discovered in 1974 near Qin’s extensive funerary complex in Xi’an and have been under archaeological investigation ever since. Amazingly, every statue seems to have been modelled after an individual person so that no two are alike. The tomb itself has not yet been excavated. Since the discovery, it seems like some terracotta statues have always been travelling around the world to figure as centrepieces of blockbuster exhibitions. I remember attending one in Brussels, Belgium, in the 1980s. The museum officials involved in an upcoming exhibition in Maaseik, Belgium, claim that it takes about eight months and direct contact with the proper Chinese authorities in Xi’an to secure all the official paperwork and permissions for the exhibition. But the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg (MVH; Hamburg Museum of Ethnology) which planned the “Power in Death” (Macht im Tod) exhibition, however, skipped the official Chinese channels and arranged to obtain the statues through the Leipzig-based Center of Chinese Arts and Culture (CCAC).

Qin tomb terracotta cavalryman and horse, Tokyo National Museum exhibition, 2005

Qin tomb terracotta cavalryman and horse, Tokyo National Museum exhibition, 2005

Authentic, original, real: take your pick!

The latter institution, which had its own Chinese terracotta warrior exhibition in Leipzig through 2007 with replicas – not so evident on the website I must say, claims they didn’t deceive anybody: the contract only stipulated “authentic” which they take to be not the same as “original,” i.e., real and excavated. In other words, they delivered statues made in China, with the correct dimensions, made of fired clay and resembling the real ones. Authentic, right? The MVH director, Wulf Köpke, doesn’t agree and has already said they likely will sue the CCAC. However, the MVH doesn’t look totally credible either. For instance, the sculptures arrived by boat from China, which is contrary to the custom of transporting this type of highly valuable and fragile artefact by plane. Also, the start of the exhibition was delayed for a month or so while there were problems with the paperwork for the statues. Again something that should have sent up warning flags. The museum is currently involved in a comprehensive rebuilding campaign, which has rendered its collections mostly inaccessible, hence the need for artefacts on loan to provide income from entrance fees. One can’t help but think that this may have influenced the museum in their willingness to press for full disclosure.

China: Intellectual property rights!

Chen Xianqi of the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage in the city of Xi’an, where the terracotta army was found, angrily called it “… a serious act of fraud [which] has implications for intellectual property right[s]” and threatened legal action. He stated that it was illegal to have an exhibition of the real terracottas that wasn’t authorised by the Xi’an authorities. In fact, these rules do make practical sense as copies of the genuine terracotta warriors are readily available in China. A local factory, for instance, is known to offer life-size replicas for 1,500 yuan ($220). In light of this it surely is odd, however, that official Chinese state broadcaster, CCTV covered the opening of the Hamburg exhibition. The role of the Chinese consulate in Hamburg has also been questioned. In The Guardian, it is stated that the Chinese authorities might actually on occasion allow exhibitions with certified replicas as long as everything goes through the proper channels. Were the Hamburg warriors authorised copies? We don’t know. So this case could possibly be more about being left out of the loop and PR damage than a real concern about heritage. As the blog “Culture Matters” pointed out, this type of blockbuster exhibition is all about making money and the revenue sharing deals are hard fought. The Xi’an heritage authorities may talk a good talk about the public having been cheated but what they really may want is their share of the revenue that they normally would have negotiated.

Fake or real: Does it matter?

The irony of course lies in the fact that nearly 10,000 people happily came and visited the exhibition before it closed. They admired the warriors, horses, weapons and decorative objects. They studied the miniature version of the excavation site as well as the multimedia display about the archaeological investigations. Entrance tickets were hard to come by and visitors came from as far away as Austria and Switzerland (Hamburg is in the very north of Germany!). The leadership of the museum (a public institution) was very happy. When the first concerns surfaced in the media, a sign was set up that the authenticity of the statues was in doubt. After the show was closed, hardly any of the visitors took the MVH up on their offer for a no-questions-asked refund of their entrance fee. One wonders if it wouldn’t have made more sense to keep the exhibition open but with a clear explanation that the big terracotta statues – not the other artefacts – were replicas. There is, furthermore, a long history of successfully faked antiquities, for example, Brigido Lara, the post-pre-Colombian ceramicist, the authenticity of which is often contested to this day, and the Getty kouros.

Shiver me timbers – I’ve been pirated!

Some of the reactions in the Western media were definitely not withoutschadenfreude, as is proven by photo captions such as “I’m sure there was a Made in China sticker on here somewhere” and “Shiver me timbers – I’ve been pirated.” By the way, the MVH no longer has any mention of the infamous exhibition on its website. The site search function still yields results for it but the links only lead to purged pages. Even the press release about the closure of the exhibition and the way to get a refund is nowhere to be found. Nor does the CCAC make any mention of the whole controversy on its website either. To be continued in court?



Originally appeared in iCommons.org, Feb. 7, 2008