China Tightens Control on Christie’s After Sale of Bronzes

Published: February 26, 2009

BEIJING— Just hours after the sale of two Qing Dynasty bronze animal heads at Christie’s auction of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in Paris, China announced that it would tighten oversight of the activities of the auction house. The Chinese government, as well as an independent group of Chinese lawyers, had attempted to stop the sale, arguing that the relics should be returned to the country. The Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (Apace) brought a suit in French court last week with similar intentions but was defeated.

The bronze rat and rabbit heads were looted from the Zodiac Fountain at the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 by British and French forces. Christie’s sold both sculptures to a telephone bidder for €15,745,000 ($20,117,073) each.

China now says that going forward Christie’s will need to provide details of the ownership and provenance of any artifacts it wants to bring into or out of the country, according to Blomberg. Objects without papers will not be allowed to travel.

The measures may make it harder for Chinese citizens to bring home artifacts they buy from Christie’s auctions, perhaps compelling people to turn to Christie’s rival Sotheby’s. “I’m a law-abiding business, and we don’t want to be embroiled in unnecessary trouble,” said dealer Lu Feifei, “so we may buy our antiques elsewhere.”

Hong Kong is Christie’s hub for selling Chinese antiquities. Last year the company brought in more than HK$1 billion ($129 million) from sales there.

Christie’s has denied any wrongdoing, saying in an e-mail statement that “we continue to believe that sale by public auction offers the best opportunity for items to be repatriated.” The Chinese government, for its part, said it will “continue to seek the return of the sculptures by all means in accord with related international conventions and Chinese laws.”

But it refuses to attempt to buy the bronzes, according to the AP. “That would give the ‘stolen’ goods a coat of legitimacy,” said the Old Summer Palace Museum in a statement.

China Poly Group, a state conglomerate, bought three other animal heads from the same fountain for roughly $4 million at auction in 2000.

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