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China’s claims on the Yves Saint Lauren bronze sculptures

China has drawn significant attention to the artefacts being auctioned by Christies that is is alleging were looted. Historically though, there was criticism at the time of the actions surrounding the acquisition of these artefacts.

Modern Ghana [1]

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Feature Article | Thu, 26 Feb 2009

In looking up the background surrounding the proposed auction by Christie’s, I came across some materials which I found very interesting and would like to share with readers. One of them was the statement attributed to Charles Gordon, British soldier, the other by the French writer, Victor Hugo. There is also the offer to return the objects in return for recognition of human rights by China.

The nature and extent of the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, the Gardens of Perfect Brightness, in Peking (now Beijing) in 1860 by Anglo-French troops and the looting even shocked soldiers who took part in the adventure. This act of aggression is regarded even to this day by the Chinese as a symbol of national shame and a warning of the dangers of foreign domination.

Charles George Gordon,( later on known as notorious imperialist, “Chinese Gordon”, “Gordon Pasha“,“ Gordon of Khartoum“) but at that time a 27-year old captain in the Royal Engineers, participated in the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, wrote as follows:

“We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.” (3)

A more interesting reaction was that of Victor Hugo, a French writer revered by many Europeans. In a letter dated 25 November 1861, addressed to a Captain Butler, he wrote as follows

“You ask my opinion, Sir, about the China expedition. You consider this expedition to be honourable and glorious, and you have the kindness to attach some consideration to my feelings; according to you, the China expedition, carried out jointly under the flags of Queen Victoria and the Emperor Napoleon, is a glory to be shared between France and England, and you wish to know how much approval I feel I can give to this English and French victory.

Since you wish to know my opinion, here it is:
There was, in a corner of the world, a wonder of the world; this wonder was called the Summer Palace. Art has two principles, the Idea, which produces European art, and the Chimera, which produces oriental art. The Summer Palace was to chimerical art what the Parthenon is to ideal art. All that can be begotten of the imagination of an almost extra-human people was there. It was not a single, unique work like the Parthenon. It was a kind of enormous model of the chimera, if the chimera can have a model. Imagine some inexpressible construction, something like a lunar building, and you will have the Summer Palace. Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, frame it with cedar wood, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem, elsewhere a citadel, put gods there, and monsters, varnish it, enamel it, gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such was this building. The slow work of generations had been necessary to create it. This edifice, as enormous as a city, had been built by the centuries, for whom? For the peoples. For the work of time belongs to man. Artists, poets and philosophers knew the Summer Palace; Voltaire talks of it. People spoke of the Parthenon in Greece, the pyramids in Egypt, the Coliseum in Rome, Notre-Dame in Paris, the Summer Palace in the Orient. If people did not see it they imagined it. It was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.

This wonder has disappeared.

One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.

We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.

Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. But I protest, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity! the crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never.

The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.

Meanwhile, there is a theft and two thieves.

I take note.

This, Sir, is how much approval I give to the China expedition.”
Victor Hugo (4)

At the end of his letter, Victor Hugo expresses the hope that France will one day return the booty to China. Is it not yet time for France and the United Kingdom to make such restitution and fulfil the hope of Hugo who is considered a great European writer of all times. Is it enough to admire the works of great men and not try to follow some of their wise counsels such as the one made in this context by Hugo?

Some may say that the objects the Chinese are now asking for are in the possession of a private individual, namely the estate holder of the estate of Yves Saint Laurent. But what prevents the French and British Governments from buying these objects and handing them over to the Chinese? After all, the two governments were responsible for the objects being taken out of China and so why can they not be active in ensuring their return? This could be a very valuable gesture of reconciliation towards the Chinese and also a symbol that the old practices have now been abandoned. Unless, of course there is no wish to send such a message.

It is interesting to note that the context or more correctly the structure of European attacks and invasions of non-Europeans has often followed the same pattern whether we look at the attack on Benin(Nigeria), the attack against the Asante Ghana), or the attack on China. The scheme is as follows:

1. Existence of lucrative trade in a non-European country.

2. Europeans seek to take control over trade and area and meet resistance.

3. Europeans allegedly send a team or delegation to negotiate peace, a delegation which is often secretly armed.

4. Some or all of the members of the European delegation are attacked and killed. In some cases, the alleged killing of some Europeans, such as missionaries, suffices as justification.

5. European power sends an army, a punitive expedition army to the non-European country.

6. The non-European country is attacked, government there is deposed, city or main palace there is burnt but before doing that, all treasures, including artworks are looted. What cannot be taken is burnt.
This pattern of behaviour of Europe towards other continents should be borne in mind when considering present claims for restitution of objects resulting from old aggressive actions.

It has been reported that in answer to the request of the Chinese for the return of two sculptures, rat’s head and rabbit’s head, undoubtedly part of a collection of 12 pieces (inspired by the Chinese zodiac) looted by British and French troops in 1860, the owner of the contested items has declared:

“I am ready to give these Chinese heads to China if they are ready to recognise human rights.” (5)

With all due respect to the feelings and views of holders of such an opinion, certain points in this context of human rights should be borne in mind.

1. As far as I can tell, China has recognized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since 1948. Her implementation of the various provisions may be questioned and have been questioned but China has assumed the obligation to fulfil the requirements of the Universal Declaration. China has also ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. (6) It is

the recognition of China by its deposition of instruments of accession or ratification which provides the basis for criticizing its violation o f human rights.

2. The withholding of the cultural objects of the Chinese, for whatever reason, is in itself a violation of the human rights of the Chinese to culture and cultural development as foreseen in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Moreover, the social and cultural development envisaged in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1988) can hardly be achieved if a State or community is deprived of its cultural objects.

3. In the present state of affairs in our world, there is hardly a State which can be said to observe completely the human rights that have been accepted by the international community. Those States that preach those rights are often themselves serious violators.

4. The violations of human rights by present States do not provide grounds for withholding property or violating other rights.

5. Human rights are not subject to any bargaining or deals that create the impression that those rights are up for sale or redemption through the offer of benefits or financial advantages.

6. We should keep on insisting that all States, including China, observe scrupulously the provisions of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other conventions. But the human rights problem should not be mixed with extraneous matters.

7. The United Nations and UNESCO have been urging through resolutions those holding such illegally and illegitimately exported objects to return them to their countries of origin. This includes all those objects that were seized through colonialist and imperialist aggressive wars.

8. We must also consider the wider implications of making the recovery of looted/stolen artefacts dependent on the observation of human rights. Will this mean that those countries that do not observe or respect human rights lose all or some of their rights to their artworks? Will this apply only to States or also individuals from such States? Will this be applicable to firms and companies that violate the human rights of their workers?

9. We all sympathize with innocent purchasers who have bought artworks in good faith that the objects purchased were legally acquired by the previous owners and were in no way burdened with legal claims of others. The question is whether one can be acting in good faith when one purchases looted artworks. Can one say that an educated European, who is interested in art, especially if he or she is a collector, was not aware of the contentious nature of the purchase he or she was making? Many auction houses nowadays give full account of the history, provenance of the objects proposed for sale. Can we accept that a purchaser under these circumstances is not aware that there are claims against the objects put up for sale?

In the present case, Christie’s leave no doubt about the origin of the objects put up for sale: “AN EXCEPTIONALLY RARE AND IMPORTANT BRONZE RABBIT HEAD MADE FOR THE ZODIAC FOUNTAIN OF THE EMPEROR QIANLONG’S SUMMER PALACE (YUANMING YUAN)

Based on the drawings by the Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione, for the zodiac fountain of the Yuanming Yuan, extremely naturalistically cast as a rabbit head, with holes dotted across its half-open muzzle to bear whiskers, and frame two rows of exposed teeth, set with large expressive eyes below raised ears, the musculature of the head finely cast beneath incised fur markings with exceptional realism overall ; stand.” (7) The notice also adds as keywords, “18th Century,” “China” and “Chinese Dynastic”. Moreover, the internet is full of information on the dispute surrounding such a sale. (8)

As regards the fact that these objects were stolen long ago, see my note on retroactivity. (9)

Kwame Opoku, 22 February, 2009.
1. Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Bergé www.christies.com

Dave Itzkoff, China Asks for Return of Relics in Laurent’s Collection” artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com

Eugene Tang and Dave Lawrence, “China Urges Return of Saint Laurent Sale Bronzes” www.bloomberg.com

For details on the background to the European attack against China in 1860, see the excellent site of Eric Ringmar, The Fury of the Europeans: Liberal Barbarism and the Destruction of Emperor’s Summer Palace http://ringmar.net/europeanfury/

2. “The sack of the summer palace UNESCO Courier. FindArtcom

The original text in French is excelllent:
« Un jour, deux bandits sont entrés dans le Palais d’été. L’un a pillé, l’autre a incendié. La victoire peut être une voleuse, à ce qu’il paraît. Une dévastation en grand du Palais d’été s’est faite de compte à demi entre les deux vainqueurs. On voit mêlé à tout cela le nom d’Elgin, qui a la propriété fatale de rappeler le Parthénon. Ce qu’on avait fait au Parthénon, on l’a fait au Palais d’été, plus complètement et mieux, de manière à ne rien laisser. Tous les trésors de toutes nos cathédrales réunies n’égaleraient pas ce splendide et formidable musée de l’orient. Il n’y avait pas seulement là des chefs-d’œuvre d’art, il y avait un entassement d’orfèvreries. Grand exploit, bonne aubaine. L’un des deux vainqueurs a empli ses poches, ce que voyant, l’autre a empli ses coffres ; et l’on est revenu en Europe, bras dessus, bras dessous, en riant. Telle est l’histoire des deux bandits.

Nous, Européens, nous sommes les civilisés, et pour nous, les Chinois sont les barbares. Voila ce que la civilisation a fait à la barbarie.

Devant l’histoire, l’un des deux bandits s’appellera la France, l’autre s’appellera l’Angleterre. Mais je proteste, et je vous remercie de m’en donner l’occasion ; les crimes de ceux qui mènent ne sont pas la faute de ceux qui sont menés ; les gouvernements sont quelquefois des bandits, les peuples jamais.

L’empire français a empoché la moitié de cette victoire et il étale aujourd’hui avec une sorte de naïveté de propriétaire, le splendide bric-à-brac du Palais d’été.

J’espère qu’un jour viendra où la France, délivrée et nettoyée, renverra ce butin à la Chine spoliée. ». wikiwix.com

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Summer_Palace
4. The sack of the summer palace UNESCO Courier. FindArtcom

5. “China offered ‘relics for rights’ in YSL auction row”, AFP. www.google.com/hostednews/afp

6. http://www.unhchr.ch/udhr/miscinfo/carta.htm
7. www.christies.com
8. lootingmatters.YVES SAINT LAURENT
9. www.google.com