China wrath over YSL sale comes as restitution claims increase
Saturday, 28 February 2009
by Fabienne Faur*
China’s wrath over this week’s sale of two ancient Chinese bronzes comes as more and more nations demand the return of heritage works — from Iraqi antiquities to the Elgin Marbles — with some snatched thousands of years ago.
“There are restitutions each and every day,” said Edouard Planche, a cultural property expert at UNESCO. “There are more and more claims.”
Returning cultural relics is relatively easy when it comes down to theft, trafficking or illegal exports.
Under a 1970 convention drafted by the UN’s cultural agency, a state seeking recovery of stolen goods must provide proof of theft to the state where the goods are believed to be held.
But the convention only covers works that went missing after 1970 — which is not the case of the ancient Chinese rabbit and rat heads sold for 31 million euros at the Yves Saint Laurent art auction Wednesday.
Once a claim is made under the UNESCO text, a court hands down a ruling that countries are expected to abide by.
As a result, Syria returned last year 700 stolen antiquities to Iraq, France some 260 stolen archeological items to Burkina Faso and Denmark 150 illicitly exported relics to China.
But restitution is a far more complex matter in disputes over works that went missing hundreds of years ago, when missionaries, amateur archeologists or troops took home relics now showcased in the world’s top museums, or which surface from time to time on the international art market.
The ongoing row between Greece and the British Museum over the Elgin Marbles, and China’s fury over the sale through Christie’s of the two ancient bronzes, are notable examples.
The pair of precious Qing dynasty bronzes, which have passed through various hands, were looted from the imperial Summer Palace by British and French troops in 1860.
“They left China before the signature of the convention, which is not retroactive,” a UNESCO statement said.
The UN agency, it added, “has not received an official request from China to recover these items.”
France says it has received no formal claim from Beijing, which on Wednesday accused auctioneers at Christie’s of repeatedly selling smuggled Chinese relics and vowed to place tough checks on the auction house in an angry response to the Paris sale.
UNESCO said it had set up a 22-member committee that includes China in order to encourage negotiations between states for the repatriation of cultural heritage works.
Greece, which wants the return of the Elgin Marbles removed in the early 19th century, is negotiating with Britain through the committee.
“The debate is always over the lawfulness and the legitimacy of the claim,” said Planche. One side will claim the works were bought legally or taken from abandoned cultural sites while the other side will claim they were stolen.
“Nowadays, countries that once were colonised are more and more interested in their heritage, their identity and their roots,” he said.
Solutions such as longterm lending, exchanges or even cash compensation are one way of resolving the rows.
The Louvre museum, for instance, has a Nigerian statue that is exhibited in Paris but labelled “property of Nigeria”.
In 2008, the Vatican and Italy returned Parthenon relics to Greece, Ethiopia recovered the Aksum Obelisk and a private Swiss foundation is about to return a sacred mask to Tanzania.