Theft of Terracotta Warrior Thumb Provokes Fierce Response from China

An unnamed Chinese official wants the perpetrator to be punished — and says the museum should pay for failing to protect priceless artifacts.

Installation view of Terracotta Warriors exhibition (courtesy Franklin Institute)

The theft of a thumb from a 2000-year-old Terracotta Warrior statue has now become an incident of international proportions. In a Chinese newspaper, an unnamed official has demanded that the perpetrator be severely punished — and says the museum should pay compensation for failing to protect priceless artifacts.

In December, during an “Ugly Sweater Party” at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Michael Rohana snuck into the closed Terracotta Warriors exhibition, which includes 10 historic statues on loan from Xi’an, China. After taking a selfie with a figure of a cavalryman, Rohana broke off and stole the statue’s thumb, according to the affidavit of an FBI agent. He later bragged about it to friends. This month, Rohana was charged with three crimes.

The Chinese response, which came soon after the charges were filed, appeared in the Beijing Youth Daily, a Communist newspaper, according to the South China Morning Post. “Their historical and artistic value are impossible to value,” the official was quoted as saying. “We call for the American side to punish this act of theft and vandalizing of precious heritage.”

Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China (3rd century BCE) (photo by capelle79/Flickr)

The Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Centre, which has loaned out terracotta soldiers to dozens of countries, has reportedly sent two experts to Philadelphia, while also preparing a team to carry out repairs. It may reconsider its loan practices in the future.

Critics in the US were equally disturbed. Albert E. Dien, a Stanford professor emeritus who curated a past Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the National Geographic Museum, called the theft “abhorrent.” “Immaturity is no excuse,” Dien told Hyperallergic in an email. He added that the museum’s security practices seemed “irresponsibly lax.”

“Hopefully the Chinese authorities will demand better care and protection when such figures are lent out,” Dien said, “so that these exhibitions will continue to educate an interested public.” He said antiquities are typically heavily insured — but it’s not yet clear who will bear the repair costs.

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