Bridging Cultures and Restoring Heritage: My Journey with the Lost Western Zhou Dynasty Artefact – Feng Xingshu Gui

Posted on: April 2, 2024 by

In the captivating world of art restitution and repatriation, each artefact whispers tales of ancient times and distant lands, waiting to be heard. Among these, the story of the recently repatriated Feng Xingshu Gui (丰刑叔簋) stands out – a narrative not just of rediscovery but of bridging cultures and epochs. My tenure at the Art Loss Register (ALR) serendipitously positioned me at the heart of this extraordinary repatriation, a testament to the enduring power of cultural exchange.

Feng Xingshu Gui – Front

Feng Xingshu Gui resurfaced in the festive period of 2022, with ALR’s provenance team uncovering this artefact during a routine search submitted by Sotheby’s. Characterised by its large bowl, dual handles shaped like a coiled-nose animal face and supported by three animal-shaped feet, the vessel is adorned with abstract animal designs beneath the rim and the eave tile-shaped patterns around its waist. Its base bears an inscription of 18 Chinese characters, which translates to “crafted by Xingshu of the Feng Dynasty, dedicated to his wife Boji, a treasure for all his generations to come.” This inscription highlights the vessel’s deep cultural significance and the exquisite craftsmanship and calligraphy of the Western Zhou Dynasty.

As the sole Chinese speaker in the team at that time, I found myself in a unique position. I played a pivotal role in matching the vessel against descriptions in a compendium of stolen artefacts compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. After extensive research, I was confident we had discovered the long-lost Feng Xingshu Gui. Our team reached out to Sotheby’s to verify its identity. The current holders, Mr King and his mother, upon realising its true origins, immediately expressed their intention to return the artefact – a gesture that underscored their deep respect for cultural heritage.

Subject to their approval, I embarked on establishing contact with the Chinese authorities. I realised in this moment that my responsibilities transcended mere translation or administrative tasks. They evolved into a mission – a quest to restore a piece of lost heritage to its rightful homeland. My first efforts extended to the Stolen (Lost) Cultural Relics Information Publishing Platform of China, trying to establish contact with the Chinese police and the National Cultural Heritage Administration. Recognising the timing coincided with the Chinese New Year, a period when many were away celebrating the holiday, I diversified my approach to leverage a variety of platforms to ensure our message reached the necessary parties. From the immediacy of WeChat and Weibo messages to the Shaanxi History Museum where the vessel was stolen, to the formal dispatches sent via emails to the Chinese Embassy in the UK (The Embassy), each step was taken with a palpable sense of urgency and purpose, hoping to transcend boundaries and holidays.

Feng Xingshu Gui – Side

The responses from The Embassy were swift, and their expressed delight over the discovery initiated further discussions on the artefact’s historical significance and the procedures for its repatriation. The initial meeting between the ALR and The Embassy brought to the forefront the possible legal framework governing this repatriation. Central to our discussions was the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the return of cultural relics, a testament to 15 years of US-China cooperation in cultural heritage protection, first signed in 2009. This agreement, continually renewed and recently extended, could play a pivotal role in facilitating the process. The MOU is designed to guide US Customs and Border Protection officers to restrict the importing of specific archaeological materials from China. Since its inception, it has enabled the return of 504 Chinese cultural relics in total from the United States to China, on 15 occasions. It reflects a significant stride in the mutual commitment of both nations to safeguarding cultural heritage. This enthusiastic engagement and reference to this MOU served as a pivotal moment, effectively opening the gate to the repatriation process. It underscored the shared commitment to restoring the artefact to its rightful place, marking a significant step forward in Feng Xingshu Gui’s possible journey back to its homeland.

The journey of Feng Xingshu Gui, from its loss to its imminent return, embodies the resilience of cultural memory and the strength of international collaboration. It highlights the critical function that entities like the ALR, auction houses and governmental institutions play in the collective effort to safeguard and return cultural treasures.

Feng Xingshu Gui – Bottom

My role in this journey has offered me a unique vantage point, revealing the complex orchestration required to navigate the world of art return. Each conversation, each piece of correspondence was a thread in the larger tapestry of cultural diplomacy, weaving together a narrative of cooperation, respect and shared human heritage. As someone who operates at the intersection of art and law, this experience has deepened my appreciation of the profound impact of our work. This venture has imbued me with a renewed sense of responsibility to champion the cause of cultural heritage preservation. Being part of such a significant repatriation effort has been an immense privilege, allowing me to contribute to the ongoing discourse on cultural exchange and collaboration.

In essence, the repatriation of the Feng Xingshu Gui is more than a mere transfer of an artefact; it is a testament to the enduring bonds of culture and history, a narrative of cooperation, respect and shared human heritage that transcends time and space.


Image Credits: 

Courtesy of the National Cultural Heritage Administration of China, photos by Luo Zang.