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The National Gallery of Canada will return to the Chinese government a Tang Dynasty treasure that left China in suspicious circumstances, the first time that the gallery has repatriated an artwork.

The priceless relief limestone sculpture, called Figure of an Arhat, dates from about 700-720 A.D. Gallery director Pierre Theberge will give it to Chinese Ambassador Mei Ping in a repatriation ceremony at the Ottawa gallery this morning.

The return of the 84.3-centimetre sculpture, a fragment of one of the full-length Louhans, or Buddhist holy men, from the Longmen Caves in the east bank of the Yi River, is being returned to China "for ethical reasons," gallery spokeswoman Marie Lugli said.

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Mr. Theberge and the gallery's boards of acquisitions and trustees authorized the return when he discovered that the sculpture, which has been in the gallery's vault for years, left China illicitly.

The repatriation is part of a growing trend worldwide for museums and art institutions to come clean about works of questionable provenance in their collections.

That includes thousands of works looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and artifacts North American Indians are actively trying to retrieve from museums at home and abroad. Recently, the NGC and the Art Gallery of Ontario posted on their respective Web sites lists of art with gaps in ownership relating to the years of the Third Reich, from 1933 to 1945. The Chinese artifact in question today is a separate issue.

According to the gallery, the relief was carved into the Kanjing Si, a temple cave commissioned by the empress Wu Zetian (625-705 A.D.). The area is one of the great artistic complexes of China and consists of a large number of decorative grottoes and niches, many of which were pillaged and destroyed. The NGC says that it is difficult to say whether Figure of an Arhat was broken off the wall before 1941 or afterward, during China's civil war or the Cultural Revolution.

The sculpture was first documented as detached from the wall in 1970 when it was sold with a collection of Chinese art assembled by collector Mary Cohen and dispersed at Sotheby's in London, England. That same year, the sculpture was bought by a private collector from the United States. It was later acquired by Dr. Herman Levy of Hamilton, Ont., and donated to the National Gallery of Canada in 1978. Ms. Lugli, in a press release obtained last night, said that NGC has received no claim for the work. However, in an effort to establish proper title and unquestionable provenance of works in its collection, the gallery approached the government of China about it.

"In keeping with the gallery's acquisitions policy to act in a responsible manner to preserve humanity's artistic heritage, the National Gallery of Canada decided that the rightful place for Figure of an Arhat is in its original home, at the Longmen Caves in China."

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