Tania Branigan guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 February 2009 14.43 GMT
Jackie Chan has criticised the sale of bronze rat and rabbit sculptures. Photograph: Mast Irham/EPA±
China’s campaign for the return of two Qing dynasty bronzes plundered during the Opium wars received star backing today when actor Jackie Chan leapt into the fray.
The Chinese government condemned Christie’s for auctioning the sculptures of rat and rabbit heads, which were sold for more than €31m (£28m) yesterday to an unidentified telephone bidder in an auction of the art collection of the late fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage told state media the auction had “harmed the cultural rights and national feeling of the Chinese people”, adding: “This will have a serious impact on [Christie’s] development in China.” It ordered officials to scrutinise the auction house’s imports and exports from China.
Both Pierre Bergé, the partner of the late designer, and Christie’s have stressed that the sale did not break any laws or international agreements, and a legal attempt to halt the sale failed. But Beijing argued the relics should be returned as part of the country’s cultural heritage.
Official wrath was nothing compared with the anger of Chan, who told reporters in Hong Kong: “They remain looted items, no matter whom they were sold to. It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today.”
Chan, who collects and has in several cases donated antiquities, said he was to start filming a movie next year about the search for, and return of, treasures from the palace. “But now we have lost two more pieces. This has made me really angry,” he said, adding that the sale was “shameful”.
The destruction of the magnificent imperial summer residence Yuanmingyuan remains a highly sensitive incident almost 150 years on, and the fate of its treasures a contentious issue.
But Bergé rubbed salt into the wound last week by telling the Chinese he would return the works immediately – on conditions. “All they have to do is to declare they are going to apply human rights, give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory,” he said.
“If they do that, I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing. It’s obviously blackmail but I accept that.”
Christie’s said it regretted the administration’s move to impose reprisal measures and stood by the sale. “We continue to believe that sale by public auction offers the best opportunity for items to be repatriated as a result of worldwide exposure,” the firm said.
The animals, along with the 10 others in the Chinese zodiac, once made up a vast fountain in Yuanmingyuan. Water would spout from their mouths to mark the hours.
Five of the heads have been repatriated, thanks to wealthy business people, but experts fear the other five may have been destroyed.
A private group, China’s Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Programme, estimates there are more than 1m relics outside the country, scattered across museums in 47 countries. It believes 10 times as many could be in private collections.
Bergé decided to auction the couple’s entire collection to fund a foundation for scientific research and the fight against Aids.