The 6,000 Garden Gnomes of Emperor Qin: Let the Great Houston Grave Ransacking Begin

This weekend, while New York crowds flock to a recently opened exhibit of Forbidden City treasures belonging to China’s last emperor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Houstonians will have a chance for a much more satisfying and interactive experience with the wonders of the ancients: Crowds here will be swarming to plunder a replica of the massive gravesite of China’s first emperor. It has come to this: Forbidden Gardens, the garden-free (and yes, until now open-to-the-public) little 60-acre museum and cultural center on the Katy prairie has found no buyer willing to purchase intact its collection of 6,000 one-third-scale terracotta soldiers from the 2,200-year-old Xi’an tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, its one-twentieth scale model of Beijing’s Forbidden City, or its many other handcrafted and made-in-China models of historic Chinese treasures. So everything in the museum will be sold off piece by piece, in one giant 2-day artificial-grave-side blowout liquidation sale.

“CASH ONLY!! ALL SALES ARE FINAL!!” screams a notice posted to the ordinarily staid museum’s website:


On Saturday February 19th, and Sunday February 20th, Forbidden Gardens will be having a sale on everything left over in the museum. Everything from the items in our gift shop, to decorative rock, to parts of the exhibits, and even our 1/3 scale Terra-Cotta soldier statues will be up for sale.

Worried that the very idea of pilfering imitation treasures from the mock grave of an ancient Chinese emperor might stir within you feelings of simulated guilt or discomfort with the whole setup? There’s no need to be. You won’t really be pilfering, because you’re gonna be handing over cash to employees of a reclusive Hong Kong real-estate investor for the privilege — $100 to $250 a pop for your new pedigreed Chinese garden gnome, depending on how tall or already battered he is. And if you don’t grab the goods, who will? Whatever doesn’t sell “is just going to get bulldozed over,” Forbidden Gardens staff member Kristina Cortez told abc13’s Erik Barajas last week. Think of it this way: You aren’t plundering a pretend tomb, you’re protecting a little piece of it for future generations of visitors to your back yard. Plus, the whole thing’s gonna be nice and orderly, see?

  • Security will be present to help everything go as smoothly as possible. Staff will also be positioned throughout the museum.
  • Only 30 – 40 people will be allowed in at a time. So please be patient and arrive early for best selections, expect a long wait and long lines. . . .
  • You are solely responsible for the removal and transportation of your items purchased.
  • We will start allowing people in at 10am.
  • At 4pm we will no longer be allowing people in depending on how many we have currently in the museum and how quickly sales are transacted. . . .

Why is Forbidden Gardens closing so suddenly after 14 years? And why the rush to dump all its scale-replica goods? The museum will be shutting down to “make way for the Grand Parkway expansion,” read a note posted to its website just last month. Several media reports have stretched that suggestion and declared that the next extension of the proposed 4th loop around Houston will “run straight over” the Forbidden Gardens grounds. But that’s nonsense. Plans for Segment E of the ginormous 50-mile-diameter ring-road show that it won’t need to take any of the property belonging to the institution’s owner and founder, the mysterious Ira Poon. Poon’s attorney, Dixon Montague of Vinson & Elkins, did tell one reporter that Harris County had sent him a letter “proposing to acquire” 12 and a half acres on the east side of the grounds. He added that the highway extension would “disrupt the brush beyond and disturb the tranquil ambience that is necessary for a contemplative place.”

But plans to build the next segment of the Grand Parkway were well known when Forbidden Gardens first opened in 1996 adjacent to the stub-end of Highway 99 at Franz Rd. Being right by the side of a future highway was seen as a plus for a local attraction. Is the potential disruption of Forbidden Gardens’ already peculiar ambience reason enough to sell off its entire collections? Museum staff members were given little more than a month to find a new home for the institution’s main exhibits. In late January they briefly advertised fixtures and some exhibit extras — including some worn and moldy terracotta figures and porcelain figurines — on Craigslist. Apparently, there were no takers for the exhibits as a whole. So this is how they’ll go, piece by piece:

  • Our 1/3 scale Terra-Cotta soldiers will start at $100 per soldier. Prices will vary on how damaged the soldier is and if it is repairable. Remember all sales are CASH ONLY so please bring the correct amount for the amount of soldiers you wish to purchase.
  • Our bigger 6ft soldiers are $250.
  • Prices on other items in our exhibits will vary. . . .
  • Again, please remember all sales will be in CASH. We WILL NOT BE ACCEPTING CHECKS OR CREDIT CARDS!!! CASH ONLY!!

Photos: Candace Garcia

10 Comment

  • Sounds like theyre charging same price they paid for them… 14 years ago.

    Seriously, if they want those things to move, they should be in the $20-$40 range.

    The bulldozed-over ones will make for some serious headscratching in the 23rd century when they are dug up and “discovered”. Maybe the Asiatic Proconsul will use it as propaganda/proof of Global Manifest Destiny was already in the making in the early 21st century.

  • Question-I thought that the grand parkway would be the third loop around the city, but this says that it will be the fourth. I know of the beltway and 610, whats the other loop ?

  • I agree those prices seem too steep.
    Especially seeing how the poor guys have been roughed-up & decapitated in the intervening weeks.

  • Some people will consider Hwy 6/ FM 1960 the 3rd loop, even though it is not a true loop. Does anyone have any idea when construction of Segment E will begin.

  • Everybody Wang Chung tonight

  • Agreed that these klotchkes are overpriced. And I’m skeptical about the “long wait and long lines.” Those things have a limited market.
    @chtdb: LOL!

  • “From John:
    Question-I thought that the grand parkway would be the third loop around the city, but this says that it will be the fourth. I know of the beltway and 610, whats the other loop ?”

    Highway 6, FM 1960

  • Yo Swamplers-
    Anybody make it over to the sale?
    Would love some eyewitness reportage…..

  • I was there on Sunday, came home w/ 2 soldiers, 1 horse and 3 small figurines. The soldiers are FANTASTIC and I wish I had bought more, but for 100 ea it was a little steep to get a whole army of them. I have a bit of buyer’s remorse about the horse, b/c its in pretty bad shape, and is not long for the world. But it was only 25$. There were many people there, but it was by no means crowded, took 45 minutes to get in the gates.
    The woman who rang me up, told me that a salvager was going to come by on Monday (yesterday) so I imagine the remaining men who were in tact (there were still 100s left at noon on Sunday) will start turning up in thrift shops around.
    What else? I am glad I got to see the gardens one time before it was destroyed. It was a lovely ground and I wish I had known about it. (I sort of knew about it, but never went.)
    Apparently they were going to sell all the cherry trees as well,so they may still be on the market.

  • I picked up a few of the terra cotta soldiers (a small army actually) and if anyone didnt get a chance to buy one, id sell a few of them. Im located inside the loop, so you dont have to drive all the way to katy! email me at