Tibet's treasures have inspired artists, authors, celebrities—and thieves. Ron Gluckman tracks the lost artifacts of one of the world's oldest civilizations

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.

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."

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.

NEW YORK The "repatriation collection" at Tibet House (212/807-0563; www.tibethouse.org) displays more than 350 artifacts, from a 14th-century carved-wood book cover to 17th-century thangkas—all intended for eventual return to Tibet. ¶ The 3,000 artifacts at the American Museum of Natural History (212/769-5100; www.amnh.org) make up perhaps the best collection of Tibetan religious objects in the country.
SAN FRANCISCO The Asian Art Museum (415/379-8800; www.asianart.org) reopens in January in a new exhibition space with 181 pieces from the Himalayas, including an 18th-century temple offering cabinet.
BASEL, SWITZERLAND The Museum der Kulturen (41-61/266-5500; www.mkb.ch) has 750 items—from a 600-year-old bodhisattva sculpture to a traditional temple drum.
AUCTIONS Christie's (212/492-5485; www.christies.com) and Sotheby's (212/606-7000; www.sothebys.com) hold Asian art sales—often with Tibetan works—in March and September. —Robert Maniaci