China Seeks to Stop Paris Sale of Bronzes
By DAVID BARBOZA
SHANGHAI — China is stepping up the pressure on Christie’s auction house to withdraw two bronzes from its sale of Yves Saint Laurent’s vast collection next week in Paris, saying they were looted from the imperial Summer Palace near Beijing nearly 150 years ago.
The two Qing dynasty bronze animal heads, one depicting a rabbit and the other a rat, are believed to have been part of a set comprising 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac that were created for the imperial gardens during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century.
China views the relics as a significant part of its cultural heritage and a symbol of how Western powers encroached on the country during the Opium Wars. The relics were displayed as fountainheads at the Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanmingyuan, until it was destroyed and sacked by British and French forces in 1860.
At a press briefing in Beijing last week, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry said the two bronzes should be returned to China because they had been taken by “invaders.” And a group of Chinese lawyers says it plans to file a lawsuit this week in Paris seeking to halt or disrupt the sale. But Christie’s says the sale is legal and plans to go ahead with the auction on Monday through Wednesday in Paris, where the two bronze items could fetch as much as $10 million to $13 million apiece.
“While Christie’s respects the cultural context around the sale of the fountainheads, and will handle the association with Yuanmingyuan with care and discretion, we respectfully believe the auction will proceed,” the auction house said in an e-mail message in response to questions.
Christie’s added that it believed in the repatriation of cultural objects but also saw its role as bringing them to market.
Most experts say China has little legal claim in international courts because the bronze relics were looted more than a century ago. But China is putting up a vigorous fight nonetheless.
In recent years it has been using its growing political and economic muscle to push other nations to hand over lost or stolen Chinese treasures, and to help it fight international smugglers who continue to loot historic sites in the country and peddle items on the black market.
After more than three years of diplomacy, the Bush administration reached an agreement with China last month to ban the import of a wide range of Chinese antiquities into the United States, in an effort to discourage illegal trade in artifacts.
The bronzes at issue at Christie’s are part of a much larger collection of artworks and antiques being put up for sale this month by the estate of Yves Saint Laurent, the French designer, who died last year at 71, and his former companion and longtime business partner, Pierre Bergé. The auction house estimates the potential sales total for the collection, which consists of about 700 pieces, at as much as $350 million.
In news releases, Christie’s has said that Mr. Bergé plans to use the auction proceeds to help form the Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, which would be dedicated mainly to scientific research to fight AIDS. On Monday Mr. Bergé’s office referred all calls to Christie’s.
The auction is opening at a time of rising nationalist sentiment in China and growing strains in its relations with France.
Last year Beijing was angered by protests against its actions in Tibet during the Olympic torch relay in Paris. And Chinese officials canceled a trip to Paris after President Nicolas Sarkozy of France met in December with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, whom Beijing has denounced as a separatist.
Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer who is helping to organize the lawsuit threatened in France, said he had located a descendant of China’s royal family to serve as plaintiff in the case.
“The Old Summer Palace, which was plundered and burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, is our nation’s unhealed scar, still bleeding and aching,” Mr. Lui said. “That Christie’s and Pierre Bergé would put them up for auction and refuse to return them to China deeply hurts our nation’s feelings.”
Mr. Liu also asserted that the sale would violate a 1995 United Nations convention governing the repatriation of stolen or illegally exported cultural relics.
But Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago who specializes in cultural-property issues, said that France never ratified the convention and that even if it had, the agreement does not apply retroactively to objects looted decades or centuries ago.
“My view is this was looted, but it would be difficult to get that legally back,” she said in a telephone interview on Monday. “But it’s got great historical significance and ought to be returned.”
Professor Gerstenblith suggested that one solution might be for the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Foundation to negotiate with China and offer it at a reasonable price. “It would probably be in the best interest of everybody if they made a deal privately with China,” she said.
Over the last decade Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen with close government ties have acquired a large number of historic items at auction and donated them to Chinese museums and institutions.
Stanley Ho, the billionaire Macao casino operator, acquired two other bronze animal heads that were believed to have been taken from the Old Summer Palace. In 2007 he acquired a bronze horse head at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong for about $9 million and donated it to Beijing.
Chen Yang contributed reporting.