Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

A Han dynasty work of art that was sold recently in New York for us $2.5 million may have been stolen from the area to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, an archaeologist and art historian based at New York University, has found similarity between the sold piece, a bronze "spirit tree" (shen shu), and one missing from the Three Gorges area. The sale was the highest price ever paid for a Chinese antiquity.

Childs-Johnson believes that the piece is one of the bronze spirit trees (also known by the more popular variation, "money tree") documented by archaeologists. The stolen spirit tree possibly derives from Baidicheng (White Empe-ror's City) in Fengjie County, a city to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam.

An article in a Chinese newspaper, Nanfang Zhoumo, had quoted the director of the Fengjie Cultural Relics Work Unit, Yao Jiong, as saying: "Just recently a completely intact bronze yaoqian shu (money/ spirit tree) was unearthed here." He went on to describe the tree as "the number one best example in the country" and said that it was sold in the black market for us $25,000.

Reports by Chinese journalists and archaeologists provide further evidence that the theft and smuggling of relics are direct results of the Three Gorges Project. Archaeologists are now in a race against time to protect the artefacts in the area not only from inundation by the dam's 640-km long reservoir, but also from the increasingly bold and well-organised looters and smugglers operating in the area. "This shen shu is an exceptional work of art," and is "unique to the Yangzi river belt in Sichuan province," says Childs-Johnson.

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