China's cultural heritage authority has opposed the auction this month of two Chinese relics looted from the Beijing Imperial Summer Palace almost 150 years ago.
The two artefacts, a Qing Dynasty bronze rabbit head and a bronze rat head, will be auctioned by Christie's in Paris from Feb. 23 to 25 and are expected to fetch between 10 and 13 million dollars each.
The two sculptures were originally housed in Yuanmingyuan, Beijing's Imperial Summer Palace. They were stolen when the palace was burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
They currently belong to the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and were put up for auction by Pierre Berge.
Zhang Jianxin, deputy director of the museum department with the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, says the Christie's auction is unacceptable and China should not be asked to buy them back.
"For the stolen relics, China definitely opposes purchasing them back by spending taxpayer money."
The official also warned business people might exploit the patriotic concerns of the Chinese to raise bidding prices for their own gain.
In the meantime , a team of 81 Chinese lawyers has written to Christie's and Pierre Berge in an effort to stop the sale and return the relics to China.
The lawyers plan to sue Pierre Berge if there is no "positive feedback within a reasonable period".
China and France signed the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which stipulated that any cultural object looted or lost because of reasons of war should be returned without any limitation on time span.
The Chinese government formally demanded cancellation of the auction in Paris of two historic bronze sculptures claimed by China, after a previous effort by a cultural group was rejected by a French court.
The sculptures, of a rat and a rabbit head, are part of an art collection from the estate of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, which went on sale at a Christie's auction that started in Paris on Monday.
China claims ownership of the heads that were taken from Beijing's Summer Palace when it was razed by invading French and British forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
"The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has formally informed the auctioneer of our strong opposition to the auction, and clearly demanded its cancellation," Ma Zhaoxu, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a news conference.
APACE, an association representing Chinese cultural and heritage interests, had filed an appeal to have the sale blocked but was turned down by the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris.
Ma scorned an offer by Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent's former business manager and companion, to exchange the sculptures for promises to guarantee human rights and allow exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, back into Tibet.
"Using the pretext of human rights to infringe on the Chinese people's fundamental cultural rights is just ridiculous," Ma said.
Interest in the case goes beyond the art world because of the tensions between Paris and Beijing over French President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to meet the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a separatist .
China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage also directly condemned the auction, saying any such sale was "in contravention of the basic spirit of the relevant international treaties."
An Administration official also told the web site of the People's Daily (www.people.com.cn) newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, that the auction "would seriously harm the cultural rights and national feeling of the Chinese people."
Christie's values the sculptures at 8 to 10 million euros each. Five of the original 12 heads are now in China.
A Paris court ruled against stopping the sale of two looted Chinese bronze sculptures which come up for auction at Christie's on Wednesday.
Under the ruling of the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris, the plaintiff, the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE), was ordered to pay compensation to the defendant .
Ren Xiaohong, a lawyer for APACE, told Xinhua that it was "of great significance" to file the lawsuit.
"We hope to arouse public attention in Europe on the fate of numerous Chinese works stolen in the past, to help keep those relics well protected and collected," Ren said.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) relics, the heads of a bronze rabbit and a rat, were among an original set of 12 bronze animal heads that once adorned the imperial summer resort Yuanmingyuan. They were looted when the palace was burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
The pair became part of a collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. They have been put up for auction by his partner, Pierre Berge.
The two items are expected to fetch between 16 million and 20 million euros (20.8 million to 26 million U.S. dollars).
So far, five of the 12 bronze animal heads have been returned to China, while the whereabouts of five others are unknown.
MCCARTHY: The sculptures of a rat and a rabbit head are one of 12 bronze heads that were plundered by French and British forces as they razed Beijing's Summer Palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
The looting and destruction of the Summer Palace, also known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness, has been seared into the Chinese consciousness:
BARME: There's been contention over it, but it's only really in the last 20 years or so that the Garden of Perfect Brightness has become an official state icon of humiliation, of the punishment visited on China because of its weak and supine rulers and its incompetent and decaying political rule.
MCCARTHY: Geremie Barme is a professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University.
BARME: The government has made the iconic elements of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, broken pillars and buildings to be the visual symbols of Chinese humiliation and of also of Chinese national pride.
MCCARTHY: And now two of those visual symbols have landed on Christie's auction block in Paris ... as part of the art collection of the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Christie's values the sculptures at up to 10 million euro each ... and says there are no legal grounds to bar the sale.
Yves Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Berge, is prepared to hand over the sculptures to Beijing ... but his offer comes at a price.
BERGE: The only thing I ask the Chinese people and the Chinese government is to address the human rights, to give liberty Tibetan people and to welcome the Dalai Lama, that's all.
MCCARTHY: It's an offer that was dismissed by China's foreign ministry as ridiculous ... a response that came as no surprise to Geremie Barme.
BARME: I'm afraid it was a very, one might sympathise with this type of request of the Chinese authorities, but one could only say in this case it would compound without doubt the humiliation and ire of the Chinese authorities. That would mean that the Chinese government today would react vociferously to any suggestion that these looted goods could be returned in trade for some deal related to Chinese human rights or to the Dalai Lama situation. No matter how one personally may view such things the Chinese authorities not surprisingly are infuriated by such a suggestion.
MCCARTHY: The dispute also takes place against a backdrop of strained diplomatic ties between China and France.
Many Chinese remain deeply angry over the treatment of a disabled Chinese torch bearer during the Olympic relay last year ... and French president Nicholas Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama just a few months ago.
MACKERRAS: Whether it's going to lead to another diplomatic crisis I mean we'll have to wait and see.
MCCARTHY: Colin Mackerras is Professor Emeritus in Asian studies at Griffith University.
He says most Chinese would see little distinction between the French government ... and the French court that rejected an appeal to ban the auction.
For many in China, it's another wound inflicted by the West ... and another reason for the government's defiant stance.
MACKERRAS: China as a rising power you might think well let's get over those humiliations. But then as a rising power you can also think well we're not going to take this anymore you know, we've had the west looking down on us all the time and saying you're doing the wrong thing and get over it and that sort of thing, and we're not going to take it any more.
Two controversial ancient Chinese relics were auctioned off on Wednesday night for 14 million euros (17.92 million U.S. dollars) each by anonymous telephone bidders in Christie's sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge in the Grand Palace of Paris.
According to Christie's, they have received 8 phone calls for "enquiries" before the sale. After the auction was launched, the competition was only conducted between telephone bidders, with no one in the scene raised for a bid.Christie's refused to disclose who were the bidders at a press conference afterward.
The bronze sculptures, a rat's head and a rabbit's head, were looted by invading Anglo-French expedition army in the 19th century, when the invaders burned down the royal garden of Yuanmingyuan in Beijing.
Li Huan, a Chinese student in France told Xinhua that the two bronzes are news for the French, but history for the Chinese. Earlier this night, some Chinese students in France voluntarily went to the Grand Palace, distributing sheets introducing the history of Yuanmingyuan and the Second Opium War in 1860.
Chinese bidder of looted sculptures refuses to pay
A Chinese man who successfully bid for two looted bronze sculptures auctioned in Paris last week says his winning bid will not be paid.
Cai Mingchao, a collection advisor of National Treasure Funds of China (NTFC), bid 31.49 million euros (39.63 million U.S. dollars) by telephone during the auction at Christie's on Feb. 25,Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of the fund, said at a brief press conference Monday.
"What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid," Cai said at the press conference.
An unnamed officer with NTFC said Cai successfully registered as an individual bidder on the day of the auction at Christie's because of his good reputation. Usually, bidders are required to register several days before an auction.
"Every Chinese would have liked to do like this at that moment, and I'm honored to have the chance to make the bid," he said.
NTFC was established in 2002 under the administration of China Foundation for the Development of Social Culture registered under the name of the Ministry of Culture for the purpose of repatriating looted Chinese artifacts.
A Xinhua reporter asked if he registered at the auction as a representative of the fund, but Cai only answered, "I did this on behalf of all Chinese people."
"The fund faces great pressure and risks by bidding for the two sculptures, but this is an extraordinary method taken in an extraordinary situation, which successfully stopped the auction," Niu said.
Earlier media reports said the 18th Century bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit were sold for 28 million euros as part of an auction of art works owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent.
China has repeatedly demanded the return of the sculptures looted when the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) was burned down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.However, Christie's held the auction after a court in Paris turned down a motion by Chinese lawyers to stop the auction.
So far, five of the 12 bronze animal heads have been returned, while the whereabouts of five others are unknown.
Wang Qing, spokesman of a group of almost 90 lawyers who have been trying to boycott the auction by legal means, told Xinhua that they were excited to hear the news.
"We admire Cai's action, which demonstrated the power of Chinese people," Wang said. He said Cai was a patriot, who had spent a lot of money in repatriating Chinese cultural relics. He was forced to do this in an effort to stop the auction.
Cai, a native of Fujian, also runs a cultural company in Xiamen city in the province. He bought a bronze buddha statue at a sotheby's auction for 116 million Hong Kong dollars (14.95 million U.S. dollars) in 2006, and brought the rare treasure back to China.
Wang said Cai's action would help the lawyers pursue further legal actions.
Gan Xuejun, general manager of Beijing Huachen Auctions Co. Ltd., said Cai's method of foiling the auction was improper and he sacrificed his reputation as a well-known antiques collector.
"I'm very surprised. Cai's reputation and future career could be ruined. Cai made the choice in an urgent situation for the country, but I personally do not support such behavior," Gan told Xinhua.
"As an experienced artifacts collector and advisor, Cai fully understood all possible consequences and he chose to do what he did after careful consideration," the NTFC officer said.
In China, bidders must pay a deposit before attending an auction. However, a deposit was unnecessary outside China and auctioneers usually accept reliable bidders, said Gan.
Gillian Leung, a public relations manager with Christie's Hong Kong office, said the company was investigating the case, but no official statement was available.
Shan Jing, chief representative of Christie's Beijing office, said usually such a case would be submitted to the company's legal affairs department, and its lawyers would decide on further action.
Gan said Christie's may take legal action to pursue payment from Cai.