TAIPEI, Taiwan -- It has been called one of the greatest heists in history. It also may rank as one of the greatest rescues of all time.
The loot in question is the richest, most comprehensive collection of Chinese treasures in the world: more than 600,000 works of art -- porcelain and other ceramics, calligraphy, paintings, bronzes, jades, carvings and rare books.
They were accumulated for the pleasure of China's emperors from the 10th century through the onset of this century. Some of the artifacts date back more than 3,000 years. Altogether, they ,, literally define Chinese culture.
If this island ever reunites with the Chinese mainland, one of the ++ more fortuitous byproducts might be the return of these invaluable items to their original home, the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing, the Chinese Communist capital.
But for now and the foreseeable future, the treasures are housed at the National Palace Museum, built in 1965 on Taipei's outskirts by the Chinese Nationalists to carry on the former imperial city's legacy.
The Taipei museum's holdings represent only about a third of the 15,000 crates worth of antiquities spirited away in wheelbarrows from the Beijing palace by the Nationalists in advance of the invading Japanese army in 1933.
At the time, the works of art were to be taken to safety in Nanjing, the Nationalist capital. But that turned out to be only the first leg of a long journey that finally ended at the Taipei museum.
The treasures -- split into as many as five groups -- traveled 60,000 miles around China before their 1949 sea voyage with the fleeing Nationalists to Taiwan.
The fragile works of art survived wartime threats, river and truck journeys, makeshift storage in caves and the tumult of the Communist revolution, all with hardly a scratch.
"We believe that a spirit had to be guarding these antiquities," says Na Chih-liang, 87, who has spent his whole working life caring for the priceless collection.
As a young, self-taught archivist, Mr. Na supervised the packing of the artifacts in crates, shepherded them through their travels and finally became a renowned jade expert at the Taipei museum. His packing secret: sandwiching the items so tightly ++ between cotton that they could not budge within their crates.
Thousands of crates from the imperial collection, however, had to be left behind on the Chinese mainland. These include about 700 crates abandoned at the last minute by the captain of the cargo ship taking them to Taiwan -- to make room for more passengers desperately fleeing the Communist takeover of the mainland.
But the best pieces are said to have been selected for the trip to Taiwan. And enough treasures eventually arrived here that even the huge halls of the Taipei museum can display only about 1 percent of them at one time. The rest are kept in vast underground vaults.
No description of the collection could be complete. From jade objects of the late Neolithic period (5,000-1,000 B.C.) to Qing Dynasty costume accessories from the 19th century, it covers the entire sweep of Chinese history.
There are 3,000-year-old inscriptions on pieces of tortoise shell known as "oracle bones," bronze vessels from the 12th century B.C., Song Dynasty (960-1279) paintings, cloisonne enamels from the 15th century and books from the imperial printing houses of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), to cite just a few.
The collection "represents not only the heritage of the Chinese people, but also all of mankind," says Chou Kung Shin, exhibition department curator at the Taipei museum. Like the works of art, Ms. Chou was born in mainland China but came to Taiwan in 1949.
She makes a case that taking the artifacts to the island rescued them from likely destruction: They either would not have been properly preserved because of a lack of resources on the mainland or they would have been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, the 1966-1976 political movement in which China's traditional culture was devastated.
Not destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, though, was the 250-acre Forbidden City. Its restored structures are unique and magnificent, but relatively few artifacts are displayed within them. It is as though the former imperial palace is awaiting the return of its treasures.