Terracotta Army Facts

A Little-known Case of Terracotta Warriors Theft in 1987

The Terracotta Army was discovered in Lintong District, Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province in 1974. Since then, many people had been casting greedy eyes on this priceless cultural relic and in 1987,  a thief really put his hands on it, shocking the whole of China.

The Appalling Lost of a Terracotta General’s Head

The excavation of Terracotta Army was in full blast in 1974. The archeological team then stored many of the unearthed terracotta statues in a warehouse at the backyard of the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. In the morning of February 18th, several staff members noticed that the lock of the warehouse was damaged, indicating an apparent break-in. Knowing the seriousness it implicated, the case was reported to the local police immediately. After several days’ check, the archeological team confirmed that an exceedingly valuable and well-preserved Terracotta General’s head was stolen.
The Ministry of Public Security and the National Cultural Heritage Administration placed high importance to this case, and a special group of Xi’an police was set up to handle it. It is said that a bounty of 1.5 million RMB was even offered to anyone who can help find this Terracotta General’s head back. The investigation lasted four months, and on June 17th, several suspects were arrested and the relic was recovered.

How Did the Theft Happen?

To everyone’s surprise, according to the confession of the prime suspect Wang Gengdi, the whole process was very easy by means of nothing but a screwdriver.
In 1987, the 21-year-old Wang Gengdi didn’t have a stable job but always dreamed of being rich overnight. By accident, he made acquaintance with a passenger steward called Quan Xueli. Quan told Wang that reselling cultural relics was a very lucrative business; and one can live comfortably just by selling a Terracotta Warrior. Moreover, Quan promised Wang that he was able to find a generous buyer for Wang. At Quan’s instigation, Wang decided to steal a Terracotta Warrior.
On February 17th, Wang first pretended to be a tourist visiting Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum. He noticed that the security was pretty lax and there was a heap of Terracotta Warriors at the backyard. Hence he thought that no one would ever notice if he just steal one and even if he was caught, he would be detained for only several days and then release, which was not a big deal.

Therefore, on that night, Wang took a screwdriver and climbed over the wall into the backyard and as he expected, there was no guard there, and many newly unearthed Terracotta Warriors were within easy reach. However, a complete statue weigh on average 160kg, which was too heavy to be moved. So Wang changed his mind and turned to steal only the Terracotta Warrior’s head. He then randomly chose one and quickly fled.

All Suspects Arrested and the Lost Terracotta Head Regained 4 Months Later

Upon seeing what Wang had stolen, Quan was very excited because it was the head of a Terracotta General. If they could sell it to an overseas buyer, they would earn a big fortune. Indeed, among about 2,000 Terracotta Warriors unearthed at that time, the stolen one had the highest rank and the most exquisite appearance. As soon as the police issued the reward, many other scalpers of cultural relics were also desperate for the whereabouts of the stolen terracotta head, because they were clearly aware that some overseas buyers were willing to pay a high price for this treasure.

However, while the police was investigating deeper and deeper, Wang and Quan failed to keep in touch with the intended buyer. In order to throw this hot potato away as quickly as possible, they eventually decided to sell the Terracotta General’s head to a local dealer. On June 17th, when transacting this cultural relic, Wang and other suspects involved were arrested by the police.

All Suspects Severely Punished

On October 7th, 1987, the Intermediary People’s Court in Xi’an City announced the verdict below. Wang Gengdi was sentenced to death for theft. Quan Xueli was sentenced to life long imprisonment. As for other accomplices who once engaged in contracting buyers, their sentence varied between eight to fifteen years in prison.

Where is that Recovered Terracotta Head now?

That recovered Terracotta head was restored back to the Terracotta General and is now exhibited in the Pit 2 of the Terracotta Army. It wears crown and has the vivid moustache, with its hands in the shape of holding a sword. Tourists will surely be impressed with this statue’s serious expression and august appearance. By the way, being the most representative Terracotta Warrior, this well-preserved Terracotta General also frequently appear in the brochures, books and newspapers.

See also:

How to Protect the Terracotta Warriors

Has Qin Shi Huang Tomb ever been robbed in the past? 

2 Destruction Accidents during Terracotta Warriors’ Exhibition Overseas

- Last updated on Feb. 03, 2023 by Brenda Lian -
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