China sought £338,000 for damage to statues at Irish exhibition

Released papers tell how minister was warned to keep quiet about issue on visit to China

China wanted £338,000 (€429,000) in compensation after two of the “Emperor’s Warriors” were damaged while exhibited in Dublin, according to documents from 1986 released by the National Archives.

Minister of state for arts and culture Ted Nealon was warned, while visiting China, not to mention the compensation.

The exhibition, often called the Terracotta Army, was held at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in late 1985 and featured figures of warriors and horses from China’s Qin Dynasty. Of the 7,500 figures discovered in 1974 and dated from 200BC, 31 went on display.

A report, on the Department of Foreign Affairs file, from John Teahan, then keeper of the art and industrial division of the National Museum, said on the night of November 26th, 1985 two light supports over the figures fell and one damaged the arm of a warrior. The following morning, two more fell, and one broke a horse's head in pieces and his right leg below the knee.


“I do not know what actually caused the collapse of these light supports,” Mr Teahan said.

The damage was repaired on site by the Chinese curator of the exhibition, with the help of museum staff, documents show.

Mr Nealon was due to visit China from March 27th to April 3rd.

A note on file, dated March 19th, said, on advice from the embassy in Beijing, Mr Nealon "should not engage in discussions on the question of damages" to the figures.

It said Chinese authorities indicated the accident which befell the warriors was “very serious” and “entirely due to faults in the physical arrangements” for which they had no responsibility. They would not say how they calculated the value of the damage.

When the visit went ahead, Mr Nealon only referred to the success of the exhibition and "apologised profusely" on behalf of the government and people of Ireland for the accident. He did not refer to compensation, but, according to a note of the visit on file, he told the Irish ambassador, Dermot Waldron, he thought the Chinese claim was "grossly inflated".

Mr Waldron had suggested IR£150,000 (€190,460) would settle the matter.

But an independent estimate was sought for the damages from a British expert, who suggested IR£35,000 (€44,452). Diplomatic discussions followed.

A telex on file from Noel Kilkenny in Beijing to the department, dated June 6th, acknowledged receipt of the IR£35,000.

“In accepting the payment, ministry of culture stressed that we should not make propaganda out of fact that we secured a very small payment when a large one had been sought,” he said.

“In an obvious attempt to save face, they said that they still believed the original sum requested was an accurate one, but they had settled for our much lower figure because relations between the two countries are more important than the payment itself.”

Among other challenges on Mr Nealon's trip were difficulties ascertaining how many gifts would be required and their quality. A telex from Mr Kilkenny to Brendan Callaghan at the Department of Foreign Affairs suggested "good but not too expensive gifts", such as Waterford Crystal, for Mr Nealon's host, Chinese foreign minister Wu Xjeqian and for the assistant minister for culture.

Three or four medium-level gifts were suggested for “senior officials” travelling with the minister. Medium-ranking officials could be given “books on the arts in Ireland etc”.

“Twelve or fifteen Cross pens could be useful for giving to drivers, interpreters etc.,” Mr Kilkenny said.

He said while the suggestions might seem “excessive”, it was better to have too many than for the minister to be embarrassed by having too few.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist