German museum warns Chinese clay soldiers could be fake

( AFP ) - A German museum has issued a warning that eight statues in its crowd-pulling exhibition on China's legendary "Terracotta Army" may be fake after an art dealer instigated a police probe into their provenance.

"The exhibition continues but we have put up three notices at the entrance warning visitors that the pieces may not be authentic," a spokeswoman for the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology, Marina Lifschitz, said this week.

"We felt we had no choice but to do this. How else can one react when the police come around investigating a complaint of fraud?"

She said visitors who felt disappointed that the life-sized terracotta soldiers they saw may not be 2,200-year-old originals could ask the museum to reimburse the entrance fee.

Some 10,000 people have viewed the exhibition, titled "Power in Death", since it opened in the northern German city on November 25.

The eight contested figures are meant to belong to the celebrated ancient "army" of thousands of clay sculptures representing warriors that adorned the grave of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang.

These were unearthed after two farmers stumbled upon the emperor's tomb in 1974 in what is considered to be one of the most important archeological finds of the 20th century.

Art dealer Roland Freyer told AFP he lodged a complaint with the police over the Hamburg exhibition after Chinese authorities assured him that the warriors on display there could only be fakes.

Freyer was a founding member of the Centre of Chinese Art and Culture in the eastern city of Leipzig, which co-organised the exhibition in Hamburg, but broke with it in a bitter row over showcasing fakes in Leipzig.

"The eight terracotta warriors in the Hamburg museum cannot be originals. Any exhibition of originals needs the approval of the cultural authorities in Shaanxi province where archeologists uncovered the treasure," he said.

"I was there in September and informed them about the exhibition. They knew nothing about it, but looked into the matter and concluded that the figures on display in Hamburg can only be fake."

Freyer said there was nothing wrong with displaying certified copies but accused the organisers of the Hamburg show of swindling the public by passing them off as originals.

He has urged the Museum of Ethnology to close down the exhibition.

Lifschitz said the museum would not remove its display but has asked experts to come from China to pronounce on the authenticity of the terracotta warriors.

"One of the experts was involved in the excavation of the Terracotta Army in 1974," she said, adding that they were expected in Hamburg soon.

She said the clay figures had "arrived in Hamburg by sea from China" and that the museum had believed that they were part of a batch of 100 terracotta soldiers that the Chinese authorities lend to museums around the world.

Some 20 are currently on display at the British Museum in London in an exhibition titled "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army" that runs until April.

A spokeswoman for the culture department at the Chinese embassy in Berlin refused to comment.

"We have no knowledge of this exhibition. We cannot comment because we have received no information from Beijing."

The Centre of Chinese Art and Culture could not be reached.

The Hamburg exhibition had initially been due to start in October but the opening was delayed by several weeks.

There was speculation in the German press at the time that the delay was due to Beijing's outrage over Chancellor Angela Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama in September.

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