Indiana Jones -Busted

The people in the reading room at Shaanxi Provincial Archives are really nice and helpful and professional. Unlike some archives they will let you look at things that are not directly connected to your approved research topic. They will also let you drink tea right there in the reading room while reading documents. On the downside they have taken over half of the reading room to practice their song and dance routine for China’s upcoming 60th national day. Fortunately I, like everyone else, am so excited about the celebration that it does not bother me.  I found a few documents on an American soldier who was busted for stealing cultural relics in 1945. Violation of cultural relics laws was a big problem in Shaanxi, and they have a fair number of documents on it going back to the 1930s. They don’t give his name, but apparently he was caught with an entire truckload of stuff, including 9 “Xia dynasty” bronze ding and 3 Six Dynasties Buddha images. Total value over 5 million yuan. By 1945 Americans no longer enjoyed extraterritoriality, so he was subject to Chinese law. On the other hand, members of the American military were governed by a status of forces agreement that gave them many of the same privileges. He did not cooperate or say much to his captors. I suspect if he had been caught with couple TLV mirrors in his backpack they would have just ignored it or maybe confiscated them. A truck puts him in Kelly’s Heroes territory, however, and they had to do something. Of course this guy could have regularized his actions without too much trouble. Lots of American China collections, most notably the Harvard library were built up during or right after the war by having Americans with money and official connections go around buying up everything they could get their hands on. One assumes this soldier was not digging this stuff up himself, he had Chinese accomplices (not mentioned here) who were helping him because he had lots of greenbacks. Of course that is totally different than say, Fairbank, tossing around Harvard money, since he was buying up Chinese culture in a poor and disordered country -with- official permission, and with a scholarly purpose, rather than for personal aggrandizement, and this guy was doing the opposite. Plus the soldier did not have a Ph.D. As so often happens in archives the documents end before the case is resolved. The last document is from the provincial government, asking if maybe the artifacts are fakes, perhaps as a way to sweep the incident under the rug. Too bad, since a trial might have generated more statements about what actually went down.


  1. Interesting series of posts from the frontiers of archival scholarship! But just for the record, I don’t think it was Fairbank who went around China buying up piles of books and ancient treasures for the Harvard libraries. Are you thinking of Mary Wright, who built up the collection for the Hoover Institution?

    In any case, your basic point is a strong one. The most famous and outrageous cases came earlier in the century, such as the plundering of the Dunhuang caves or the Tang dynasty horses taken for the Kansas City museum.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.