The plundering escalated during the Cultural Revolution. By the seventies, Tibet was like a "giant garage sale," in the words of Jasper Becker, a Beijing-based journalist who has covered the region for decades. "Entire lots would sell for millions of dollars at a time," he recalls. "The Chinese organized peasants to go around and dig up old treasure to melt down. It was all pretty mad." Back then, dealers would move handicrafts and porcelain across the mountains to Kathmandu, or by plane to Beijing. The goods ended up in Europe or America, rising in price tenfold or more along the way. One dealer says he traded old T-shirts for woven rugs worth hundreds of dollars. "Nobody knew the value of anything," he recalls. "Tibet was a gold mine."
Nowadays, Nick tells me when we land in Lhasa, the country is more threadbare but the dealers' routes are pretty much the same. We met by accident on the day of our flight, in Chengdu, capital of China's Sichuan province. Permits are required to enter Tibet, but it's simple to skirt the rules in Chengdu, home to China's spiciest food and most rampant corruption. Nick and I both booked the same bogus group trip with the same black-market agent. We both planned to skip the bus tours of Lhasa and disappear into the labyrinth of alleys that dart in and out of the medieval architecture. I asked him to be my Virgil in the underworld of art smuggling, on condition of anonymity. Eventually, he overcame his impulse to do me violence and agreed.
Nick didn't start out as a smuggler. In the seventies, he was just another long-haired Dutch traveler on Asia's hippie trail, buying small pieces to sell as a lark. At that time Tibetan art was still marginally valued; the buyers were casual collectors and owners of specialty shops in Europe and North America. "None of us knew anything about art in the beginning, but we learned," he says.
He shows off his expertise as we stroll the Barkhor, the sacred circuit around the seventh-century Jokhang, Tibet's most important temple. Wrapped in crimson and maroon fabric, Buddhists from across the plateau crowd the cobbled path, spinning prayer wheels, repeating mantras as they circle the Barkhor in a clockwise direction. Soon, we are swept up by the procession. I watch pilgrims slip their hands inside their robes before passing Nick some object to sell, a chunk of silver or statue. Nick closes his fist and, just as quickly, gives the trinket back. He rarely stops for a good look. Rolling it around in his hand, feeling the weight and shape, is usually sufficient. "It's mostly junk these days," he explains.
Nearly everyone has something for sale. Back in town, we're besieged at each corner, then led down dead-end alleys, into old courtyards, up and down stairs, past howling dogs, into dark basements. Deals are sealed slowly, with much haggling. In a house adorned with gold-trimmed thangkas, our host reverently unwraps a scrap of ornately decorated metal. Nick turns it over carefully, admiring the carving. "It's clearly been pulled from a temple," he says, "but it's broken. Whole, it would be valuable. Like this, it's hard to sell."
Later, in another dingy back room, we're shown a pair of carved leather plates so old that the lacquer glaze has chipped away. "Smell them," Nick advises. A quick whiff sends me reeling, amid much laughter. The odor spans generations. (In Tibet, a colorful but smelly place, cleaning is relegated to the once-a-year Bathing Festival.) The sellers want $100. Nick reckons that the better piece might fetch that much in Nepal. Without too much effort, he buys both for $10, planning to give them to a friend. Nick visits Tibet four or five times a year, but isn't really after trifles. "Usually, I try to make enough with just one or two pieces to pay for my trip," he says. Thus far, his best find is a dorje, a small bronze scepter that monks roll in their hands during religious ceremonies. Reproductions go for $5 to $50 in the markets. "But this one is real," he says assuredly. "I figure it's worth eight thousand."