The Case of the Terracotta Thumb Theft

The theft of the ancient Chinese terracotta soldier’s finger by a U.S. citizen has stirred up quite a debate. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
The theft of the ancient Chinese terracotta soldier’s finger by a U.S. citizen has stirred up quite a debate. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

The theft of the ancient Chinese terracotta soldier’s finger by a U.S. citizen has stirred up quite a debate. While China has demanded the culprit be severely punished, the perpetrator was released on bail by U.S. authorities on February 13. China is upset with the U.S. for not treating this situation more seriously and for letting him off easily. Chinese authorities continue to demand a more severe punishment. Should the American who vandalized the terracotta warrior’s thumb be severely punished?

The incident

A 24-year-old Delaware resident, Michael Rohana, attended an “Ugly Sweater Party” at the Franklin Institute on December 21, 2017. He entered the “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor” exhibit, which was closed to the public at the time. The Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the Institute housed 10 historic statues that were loaned from Xi’an Province, China, since September 2017.

At around 9:15 that evening, Rohana sneaked into the exhibit with his friends. After a few minutes, the group left, leaving Rohana alone with the terracotta soldiers. CCTV footage shows Rohana using the flashlight of his phone to view the soldiers and even embracing one of the figures while taking a selfie. Rohana was seen holding the figure’s left hand. It is alleged that Rohana broke the thumb of the figure and left the premise with it in his pocket.

The authorities noticed the vandalism on January 8th, 18 days after the crime occurred. The incident was immediately reported to the police who arrested Rohana within 5 days. He was charged with concealment of major artwork from a museum and interstate transportation of stolen property. However, Rohana was later released on a $15,000 bail.

The incident was immediately reported to the police who arrested Rohana within 5 days. He was charged with concealment of major artwork from a museum and interstate transportation of stolen property. However, Rohana was later released on a $15,000 bail. (Image: thebluediamondgallery / CC0 1.0)

The Franklin Institute has publicly apologized for the incident and has accepted that their safety contractor did not follow the correct closing procedures, which allowed Rohana and his friends to enter the exhibit. A further police investigation into the matter revealed that Rohana had bragged about stealing the terra-cotta thumb from the exhibit, and had even posted pictures of it on social media.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

The terracotta soldiers in question are a part of a 2,000-year-old Chinese heritage collection. The figures belong to a collection of 8,000 soldiers that were made of clay and built during the Qin Dynasty. The discovery of this archaeological site in 1974 is one of China’s most treasured finds and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. The damaged terracotta soldier is valued at $4.5 million, and the thumb alone is valued at $5,000.

Wu Haiyun, the Director of the organization that loaned the statues to the Franklin Institute, issued a statement where he claims that the Institute was careless with the statues, implying that such an incident could have been avoided had they had taken appropriate security measures.

The terracotta soldiers in question are a part of a 2,000 year old Chinese heritage collection. The figures belong to a collection of 8,000 soldiers that were made of clay and built during the Qin dynasty. (Image: Jmhullot via flickr CC BY 3.0)

The terracotta soldiers in question are a part of a 2,000-year-old Chinese heritage collection. The figures belong to a collection of 8,000 soldiers that were made of clay and built during the Qin Dynasty. (Image: Jmhullot via flickr CC BY 3.0)

China has demanded the American authorities treat this matter seriously and severely punish the culprit. There is no doubt that the perpetrator should be punished, especially since the crime had taken place with the intent to steal and cause damage. If the act had been an accident during normal visiting hours, the discussion would have been different. However, not until the perpetrator was caught by the police did he confess to his mistake and offer to make amends. His actions of posting the photos of the stolen thumb a day later also suggests that until he was caught, he believed he had gotten away with the theft and even bragged about it on social media.

The severity of the punishment is an important part of the discussion too. The country in question, China, is one of the biggest offenders of human rights and their demand for “severe” punishment is a hard pill to swallow. Many of their own human rights violations are yet to be addressed by the Chinese authorities. On the other hand, U.S. authorities need to understand the importance of the matter to the Chinese people. These soldier figures have been loaned over 260 times to 60 different countries over the past 40 years and there has been no such incident.

It is difficult to place a monetary value on the figures as they have such a high historic value to the Chinese people. The matter needs to be looked upon seriously and strict action needs to be taken to ensure that the heritage of the Chinese people isn’t disgraced in such a manner again.

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our weekly email

The Real Victims of the Trade War
Is China Prepared to Call In Its Chips?