Bathed in light, the snowy outlines of Mount Everest take on a serene appearance at dawn. My airplane seatmate, Nick, and I stare at the gilded landscape in silence—until he turns around and snarls, "I don't know whether I should help you or break your legs."
So much for the magic of soaring over the Himalayas toward Tibet, the Rooftop of the World. But serenity isn't the point of this trip: I've come to report on the trafficking of Tibetan art, which in the past few decades has torn the cultural heart out of one of the world's oldest civilizations. Dealers have grown rich selling these sacred objects to Western collectors for hundreds of thousands of dollars while Tibetans remain mired in poverty. "The dealers have no morality," Nick (not his real name) says as we land in Lhasa, Tibet's two-mile-high capital. "They talk about the spiritual qualities of Tibet, but all they care about is money. They're crooks." Nick should know. He's one of them.
Isolated for centuries on its inhospitable, 12,000-foot-high plateau, Tibet has produced countless treasures of Buddhist devotional art—everything from thangkas, meticulously painted religious scrolls, to stupas, small bronze representations of Buddha's burial mound. Tibet owes its special artistic qualities to its position at a mountainous crossroads between India and China. Only in recent years, however, has the outside world taken notice of these works. "Chinese art has been traded for centuries," says Hugo Weihe, head of Indian and Southeast Asian art for Christie's auction house in New York. "But Tibetan art didn't start to emerge until the late 1970's, and it's just coming into its own."
The political struggle for Tibetan independence—personified by the Dalai Lama and supported by such luminaries as Richard Gere, Martin Scorsese, and Philip Glass—has heightened public interest in the art. "Celebrities naturally attract more attention to it," Weihe says, which helps drive up prices as well. Christie's has set the record for Tibetan pieces—$387,500 in September 1998 for an iron ritual stand with damascened silver and gold decorations; it got the same price six months later for an elaborate 15th-century bronze figure of a Tibetan king. The Dalai Lama has advocated collecting as a means of saving Tibetan art for posterity. But controversy remains. Two years ago, a Christie's catalogue cover showed fragments of a panel from a 12th-century monastery in eastern Tibet, similar to panels that have been commonly hacked off by soldiers and adventurers. Valued at up to $200,000, the piece went unsold; many speculated that concern about its provenance was the reason.
The legal issues surrounding the trade in these works are murky. In the simplest terms, Chinese law dictates that no object more than 180 years old or deemed important to cultural heritage may be taken out of the country (though such an object is permitted to travel into China from Tibet, an autonomous region of the People's Republic). But a piece can be exported if the Cultural Affairs Bureau determines that it is neither a prohibited antique nor a cultural relic. This is how most legitimate dealers operate. Of course, government officials can be, and often are, receptive to bribes.
Other circumstances help ease the flow of artifacts out of Tibet, rather than vice versa. The porous border with Nepal makes it a favored way station for traders, since once an object is outside China, Chinese laws no longer apply. International conventions exist but are weakly enforced. And China's sometimes repressive stranglehold on Tibet bolsters the contention of many Western collectors that artworks shouldn't be returned to an occupying power—particularly one with such low esteem for religious and cultural relics. After the People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1951, Chinese troops razed thousands of temples, destroying countless antiquities.