Museum Security Network

Row looms over Yves Saint Laurent's Qing treasures sale

By Le-Min Lim | 2009-1-25

A PLANNED Paris sale of two Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bronzes from the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent’s art collection is raising the ire of many Chinese who say they may sue auction house Christie’s International.

Liu Yang, who heads 67 volunteer lawyers, said the group is preparing a lawsuit to block the February sale of two animal-head sculptures – a rabbit and a rat.

They are among 700 works in the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge Collection expected to raise as much as 300 million euros (US$389 million), according to Christie’s.

The proceeds will help set up a foundation for AIDS research.

“For each and every item in this collection there is a clear legal title,” Christie’s said in a statement.

“We strictly adhere to any and all local and international laws.”

Any lawsuit would be filed in the French courts, Liu said. The lawyers seek to block the sale first and ultimately to repatriate the items.

The 1995 United Nations Unidroit Convention limits claims on stolen cultural artifacts to within 50 years of their theft.

All the bronze heads are among 12 zodiac animals from a water-clock fountain in Yuanmingyuan, or the Imperial Summer Palace.

The palace was set ablaze and its treasures plundered and scattered by British and French troops in October 1860.

Sale of a tiger head from the same fountain in 2000 by Christie’s rival Sotheby’s sparked protests in Hong Kong initiated by the city’s law makers.

The horse head was offered by Sotheby’s in September 2007, privately bought by Macau billionaire Stanley Ho for US$8.9 million and donated to the Chinese government. In 2003, Ho bought the fountain’s boar head at a private sale and donated it to Beijing’s Poly Museum which also has the monkey and ox. Whereabouts of the others are unknown.

“These items belong to China and should return to us,” said Liu.

“Prices of these items have soared beyond the reach of civilians and governments.”

The Cultural Heritage Administration’s head of museums, Song Xinchao, said in November last year the sale of the two bronze heads violated international laws and China firmly opposed the auction.

China will try to repatriate lost treasures “through legal channels,” Song had said, without giving details.

More than one million pieces of top-grade Chinese relics are believed to be scattered in more than 200 museums in 47 nations.

Looting was at its worst in the century after the first Opium War (1839-1842), when British, Russian and other foreign troops annexed parts of China.

The chances of repatriating items lost during foreign invasion of China are “a long, complicated legal process,” said He Shuzhong, founder of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a non-government organization.

He is also an official at the Cultural Heritage Administration.

“We could spend our time and energy pursuing these lost relics, with little promise of return,” he said. “Or we could move forward and focus on protecting the treasures we still have.”

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