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CHINA will ban the export of artefacts made before 1911 by the end of the year.

The new rules will prohibit the export of any antiques that predate the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), moving forward the current cut-off date that stands at 1795 (the year of the abdication of the emperor Qianlong).

The announcement was made by Shan Jixiang, director-general of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, who said the move was designed to protect cultural heritage.

Currently anyone wishing to legitimately move antiques out of China must submit the item to the authorities for assessment, receive a certificate and have the item sealed with a red wax stamp. In introducing the new legislation the Chinese government are attempting to curb the movement of previously overlooked 19th century objects that – riding on the coat-tails of a booming Chinese market – have accelerated in price.

The wider problem, however, is smuggling and the loopholes that exist on the ground in the People’s Republic, where (with its different laws) Hong Kong has become the trading post for ‘problem’ objects. In short, what is illegal to trade in mainland China can be exported legitimately once in Hong Kong.

Shan acknowledged thousands of antiques are being smuggled out of China every year, moved first to Hong Kong and then to the West. “The thieves and smugglers are organised and well-equipped. They have networks around the globe, and these days tend to use violence much more than they did before,” he told China Daily.

He added in recent years that the thieves have switched their focus. While tomb raiding remains a major issue – and the source of so many of the ancient bronzes and terracottas on the market – it has become harder to steal from museums with the advent of hi-tech security equipment.

An increasing problem is the theft of large numbers of rock carvings from historical sites and the plundering of relics that lie underwater in thousands of sunken ships off the Chinese coast.

The decision to curb the trade in 19th century objects is the latest move by the People’s Republic to protect its cultural heritage. In 2004 the Chinese government requested that the US government impose restrictions on Chinese works of art imported to America. Such restrictions, were they to be accepted, would have dire consequences for the international trade in Chinese works of art.

By Roland Arkell