Such finds are rare, and getting to be more so. "Practically everything in Tibet has been picked over," Nick laments during dinner at the Snowlands Hotel, once the favored roost of smugglers. Eight years ago, I watched them gather with piles of carpets and artifacts, comparing prices and plotting strategies for slipping the goods out. Now, nearly all of them are gone. "This could be my last run, too," Nick says with a sigh. "It's hardly worth the trouble. In the eighties, there was so much good stuff in Lhasa, you didn't even bother to look." Since then, the demand has exploded and the supply has dried up. Prices for the best pieces have skyrocketed over the last 20 years, says Handel Lee, an American lawyer who owned a Tibetan art gallery in Beijing and is opening another in Shanghai next year. "Tibetan art has become faddish over the past 10 years," he says. "That tends to drive up prices—and encourages the looting of temples."
The Chinese government, prodded by world opinion, has in recent years tried to curb the pillage, making more arrests and seizures, closing stores, and registering important works to establish their provenance. Too little, too late, say critics. They contend that the trade has merely been diverted to underground channels. In 2000, Lee was forced to close his Beijing gallery when the number of good pieces started to dwindle and unsavory characters began muscling into the trade. "My partner was threatened with death if he made any more deals," Lee recalls. "Art can be a brutal business, but these guys were real thugs. They went to Tibet and told our suppliers that if they continued to sell to us, they'd kill them and their families, too."
Threats like that have diminished since early 1999, when bandits looted Yumbu Lagang Palace in southern Lhoka prefecture. Originally built in the second century B.C., this was the home of Tibet's first king, where, according to local lore, religious texts fluttered from the sky onto the roof, heralding the first appearance of Buddhism in Tibet. The theft of three dozen artifacts from a national monument was apparently the last straw. China arrested Tsering Tashi, a prominent Nepalese dealer, and jailed him for nearly two years. Whether he was actually involved in the robbery remains unclear, but Beijing intended to demonstrate that it was cracking down.
Yumbu Lagang seems like a good place to see both the early origins of Tibetan art and its current state of affairs. Driving there from Lhasa takes most of a day and is like a voyage back in time. I pass fishermen in canoes made of yak skin; some of the woolly beasts pull carts set upon what look like the world's first wheels. The road becomes bumpy dirt after Tsetang, a dull highway town that isn't even marked on some maps, though it's Tibet's third-largest city. The views improve as I roll into the lush Yarlung Valley, where green fields filled with yellow rape flowers are flanked by mountains. More stunning still is my initial sight of Yumbu Lagang. In the distance a sheer ridge rises, fluttering with prayer flags. The ancient palace—rebuilt in 1982—sits atop a jutting pinnacle that resembles a finger pointing to heaven.
Both the palace and a small adjoining temple provide a glimpse of regal life in Tibet more than 2,000 years ago. There was little luxury in this small, rugged fortress, but it commanded views over all approaches. That didn't protect the temple's ancient relics from modern-day bandits who, say the monks there, came at night and tied up a watchman. The sacred relics they stole, originally from a shrine dating to the seventh century or earlier, haven't been seen since. Now all that's left at Yumbu Lagang are tiny statues of Tibet's ancient kings and Buddhist sculptures made of yak butter.
Throughout Tibet, reported thefts have declined since the 1999 arrests. Still, security doesn't seem to be a high priority. Returning from Yumbu Lagang, I stop at Mindroling, one of the oldest monasteries of Nyingmapa Buddhism. It is rarely visited, perhaps because it was dynamited during the Cultural Revolution and there isn't much to see (it was a reproduction, anyway—Mongols had razed the original building centuries earlier). Yet an amateur anthropologist in Lhasa tipped me off to a rare sight: ancient relics that have reappeared. "I noticed all of a sudden, on one visit, some very old stupas," he told me with great excitement. "They have to be twelve hundred years old, and they simply weren't there before." I find the stupas, small bronze bell-shaped sculptures with elaborate geometric detailing, around a big Buddha, and they are spectacular: perfectly proportioned and artistically rounded. They were hidden in a nearby village, says one monk, until elders felt that conditions were safe enough to bring them back. Yet these treasures are tied together with a single strand of string, vulnerable to anyone with the speed and inclination to snatch them away.
the monks seem unworried; they are Buddhists, after all. But friends of Tibet—specifically, Columbia University professor Robert Thurman and the other founders of Tibet House in New York—have been troubled enough to do something. Tibet House has assembled 200 pieces of art that it hopes it will someday set up in a national museum in a free Tibet. If and when that day will come is impossible to predict, but with the removal of so much of Tibet's artistic heritage, and the closure of so many temples, there is little left to inspire new generations of craftspeople. "Some things have been totally wiped out," says a Western art historian in Tibet. "The Chinese not only destroyed the art, but they chased away the old masters. There is no one to teach the new artists. And all the great works are gone."
Or going fast. The next time I see Nick, he's in Hong Kong, trying to sell a precious teapot. He paid $800 but expects to get $40,000. "The secret is, I have two buyers interested, but they're using the same agent. He gets them both worked up, telling them other buyers are interested. It's what we call 'cooking,' " he says with a farewell wink. "It's all a big game." But in Tibet, many fear, the game is already over.