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The announcement, reported in national newspaper China Daily, was made by Shan Jixiang, director of State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), the country’s leading authority on cultural relics preservation, on November 23, just after Chinese-American collector George Fan and his wife Katherine Hu donated nine bronze relics, dating back more than 2500 years, to a Chinese museum.

Owing to wars and rampant smuggling of antiques between the 1860s and 1949, foreign museums own some “1.64 million relics that originally belong to China”, said Shan.

But the announcement of compensation packages has not meant a softening in attitudes to the trade in relics, with SACH reiterating its objection to both auctions and purchases of Chinese cultural relics exported illegally, said China Daily.

Song Xinchao, director of the SACH museum department, said China was in favour of retrieving its looted relics through “legal or diplomatic means”.

SACH archives show that, since 1998, China has managed to retrieve nearly 4000 antiques through donations, purchases by overseas Chinese, and legal and diplomatic means.

Officials are most concerned with items removed from the Yuan Ming Yuan Summer Palace.

How persuasive the promise of compensation will be remains to be seen, especially as no further details have been released as to how the criteria defining “reasonable” will be determined.

By Ivan Macquisten