Feet of Clay China Threatens to Sue over Fake Terracotta Warriors

A Hamburg museum was forced to close an exhibition of terracotta warriors earlier this week after it transpired that the figures were fake. Now Chinese officials are threatening to sue the museum and the exhibition organizers over the dispute.

What does it mean to be "authentic"? How is that different from "original"? And can a fake also be authentic? Such semantic hair-splitting is at the heart of a museum scandal about fake Chinese terracotta warrior statues that is causing friction between Germany and China.

The tone of the dispute has taken a sharper turn as Chinese cultural officials threaten legal action against the German exhibitors of the fake terracotta statues.

"It is a serious act of fraud and has implications for intellectual property rights," said Chen Xianqi, a spokesman for the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage in the city of Xi'an where the terracotta army was found, in remarks to the Chinese news agency Xinhua Thursday.

"The museum of the terracotta army in Xi'an has not sent any authentic objects for display in Germany recently, and currently no such relics are on display in Germany," said Chen, who said his bureau knew nothing about the exhibition. "The Hamburg Museum of Ethnology and the German Centre of Chinese Arts and Culture have organized the exhibition with no consultation with us," he said. Xinhua reported that the officials were "considering legal action," without going into details.

The Hamburg Museum of Ethnology decided on Wednesday evening to close the exhibition after the Leipzig-based Center of Chinese Arts and Culture, which supplied the exhibits for the show, admitted that the figures were copies.

On its Web site, the Hamburg museum issued a public apology for the unintended deception. It is also offering entrance fee refunds to the nearly 10,000 visitors who have already viewed the "Power in Death" exhibition, which includes eight clay-warrior figures and two horses, since it opened on Nov. 25. The police are now investigating the case, the news agency DPA reported Thursday.

The museum began investigating the authenticity of the figures last week after an exhibition organizer, Roland Freyer, who had been behind an earlier terracotta warriors show in Leipzig in 2005, raised doubts about the figures.

However, the CCAC claims it did not deceive the museum. "We never used the term 'original'," a spokesperson for the CCAC, Yolna Grimm, told DPA on Wednesday. He claimed that the contract with the museum had stipulated that the figures would be "authentic." "For us, 'authentic' means ceramic, life-sized and comparable with the originals," he said.

However, the museum's director, Wulf Köpke, took issue with Grimm's semantics. "I've checked in the dictionary, and 'real,' 'authentic' and 'original' have identical meanings," he told DPA Wednesday.

When contacted by SPIEGEL ONLINE Friday, Köpke said he was not making any further comments to the press until next week, when, he said, a "very surprising" development might take place.

China's terracotta army, which was uncovered in 1974, is over 2,000 years old and is one of the greatest modern archeological finds. More than 1,000 life-sized figures were found around the mausoleum of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang. Each of the figures is unique.

The biggest overseas loan of the terracotta army is currently at the British Museum in London, whose "First Emperor" exhibition contains 120 artifacts, including 20 life-size warriors.

Meanwhile another museum in Germany is demonstrating that sometimes the copy is more interesting than the original with an exhibition of fakes. "The Art of Forgery -- Analysed and Uncovered" at the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin includes several works from China, including a forged sculpture of a Han Dynasty jester figure and a fake Banshan earthenware pot.



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