March 2, 2009

Chinese bidder won’t pay for YSL statues

Posted at 9:38 pm in Similar cases

Following the contentious auctioning of statues from the collection of Yves Saint Lauren, it now transpires that the winning bidder does not plan on paying for them – but was bidding as a publicity stunt to highlight the plight of the disputed treasures.

The Times

March 2, 2009
Chinese bidder can’t pay, won’t pay for YSL auction statues
Jane Macartney, China Correspondent

A Chinese bidder who said he had bought at auction two looted bronze imperial sculptures once owned by Yves Saint Laurent announced today that he would not – or could not – pay for the treasures.

The two pieces, the head of a rat and the head of a rabbit that were designed by Jesuit priests as part of a 12-head Chinese zodiac fountain for an imperial pleasure palace in the 18th century, were bought for €15,745,000 (£13,977,000) each by a telephone bidder last week.

The revelation of what now appears to have been a stunt bid in Paris last week was made by Cai Mingchao, already a well-known buyer on the international auction scene and the general manager of the Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Company.

Mr Cai described his bid as a patriotic act. “I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.”

But he made clear, speaking in his role an adviser to a fund seeking to retrieve looted treasures, that no money would change hands for the relics stolen from Beijing’s Yuan Ming Yuan – the Garden of Perfect Brightness, or Summer Palace of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) emperors.

“What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid,” he said.

China had demanded a halt to the auction of the two heads, saying these were the rightful property of the nation because they had been stolen when British and French troops burnt and plundered the Yuan Ming Yuan in 1860 after the second Opium War. The order to set fire to the sprawling palace on the edge of Beijing was given by the eighth Lord Elgin – son of the man famed for obtaining the Elgin Marbles – as a punishment to the emperor whose government had kidnapped and killed several members of a diplomatic mission – including The Times correspondent.

If Mr Cai is indeed the winning bidder, his decision not to pay for the two heads is unlikely to have a serious impact on Christie’s – although his standing in the international art world could be affected.The auction house would be unlikely to sue him for breach of contract and in such cases usually turns to the underbidder to take the items.

Many Chinese have worked themselves into a nationalistic passion at the prospect of the loss of the two imperial treasures.

Five of the heads have already been bought by patriotic philanthropists at international sales and returned to China. The whereabouts of the other five are unknown.

However, respected academic Luo Zhewen, chairman of the Chinese Heritage Society, wrote that there was no need for such breast-beating and questioned the artistic merit of the bronze fountainheads – which he described as “taps”.

He wrote: “The greatest value of the bronze heads is that they are evidence of the crime committed by imperialists who invaded China. The despicable part of the auction is not that it has breached international agreements, but that it is trading criminal evidence for a massive profit.” Asked by one Chinese newspaper to give his estimate of the true value of the heads, the venerable historian replied: “Less than one million renminbi [£100,000]. More than that, and the buyer should figure that he’s been cheated.”

Macau Daily Times

China wrath over YSL sale comes as restitution claims increase
Saturday, 28 February 2009
by Fabienne Faur*

China’s wrath over this week’s sale of two ancient Chinese bronzes comes as more and more nations demand the return of heritage works — from Iraqi antiquities to the Elgin Marbles — with some snatched thousands of years ago.
“There are restitutions each and every day,” said Edouard Planche, a cultural property expert at UNESCO. “There are more and more claims.”
Returning cultural relics is relatively easy when it comes down to theft, trafficking or illegal exports.
Under a 1970 convention drafted by the UN’s cultural agency, a state seeking recovery of stolen goods must provide proof of theft to the state where the goods are believed to be held.
But the convention only covers works that went missing after 1970 — which is not the case of the ancient Chinese rabbit and rat heads sold for 31 million euros at the Yves Saint Laurent art auction Wednesday.
Once a claim is made under the UNESCO text, a court hands down a ruling that countries are expected to abide by.
As a result, Syria returned last year 700 stolen antiquities to Iraq, France some 260 stolen archeological items to Burkina Faso and Denmark 150 illicitly exported relics to China.
But restitution is a far more complex matter in disputes over works that went missing hundreds of years ago, when missionaries, amateur archeologists or troops took home relics now showcased in the world’s top museums, or which surface from time to time on the international art market.
The ongoing row between Greece and the British Museum over the Elgin Marbles, and China’s fury over the sale through Christie’s of the two ancient bronzes, are notable examples.
The pair of precious Qing dynasty bronzes, which have passed through various hands, were looted from the imperial Summer Palace by British and French troops in 1860.
“They left China before the signature of the convention, which is not retroactive,” a UNESCO statement said.
The UN agency, it added, “has not received an official request from China to recover these items.”
France says it has received no formal claim from Beijing, which on Wednesday accused auctioneers at Christie’s of repeatedly selling smuggled Chinese relics and vowed to place tough checks on the auction house in an angry response to the Paris sale.
UNESCO said it had set up a 22-member committee that includes China in order to encourage negotiations between states for the repatriation of cultural heritage works.
Greece, which wants the return of the Elgin Marbles removed in the early 19th century, is negotiating with Britain through the committee.
“The debate is always over the lawfulness and the legitimacy of the claim,” said Planche. One side will claim the works were bought legally or taken from abandoned cultural sites while the other side will claim they were stolen.
“Nowadays, countries that once were colonised are more and more interested in their heritage, their identity and their roots,” he said.
Solutions such as longterm lending, exchanges or even cash compensation are one way of resolving the rows.
The Louvre museum, for instance, has a Nigerian statue that is exhibited in Paris but labelled “property of Nigeria”.
In 2008, the Vatican and Italy returned Parthenon relics to Greece, Ethiopia recovered the Aksum Obelisk and a private Swiss foundation is about to return a sacred mask to Tanzania.

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  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    03.11.09 at 6:25 pm

    I am afraid there may be more similar actions, not limited to auctions, which may probably be in the making as more governments in Asia and Africa realize that museums, art dealers, and others in the West do not take seriously the claims for the restitution of stolen/looted cultural artefacts. Above all, the arrogance of many Western museum directors and dealers is not likely to pacify those who feel that military might has been employed to deprive them of important elements of their culture. Nevertheless, the present situation as regards restitution of stolen/looted cultural objects needs not lead to disruption of settled methods of transfer of ownership or possession if those concerned and their governments would show some understanding for the position and feelings of non-Western countries. So far as I can tell, there is not much indication that there will soon be a change in the condescending attitude of the West. On the contrary, the recent lecture by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, ( http://www.modernghana.) and the latest article from James Cuno, Director, Art Institute of Chicago,( clearly demonstrate that Western museums, or leading museum directors, are not trying to reach a position on restitution of stolen/looted cultural objects which will take into account the needs and feelings of others. They are rather desperately seeking argumentation which will bolster their well-known positions that have been generally disputed.

    When non-Western governments, their lawyers and their economists turn their attention to these issues, there will be many interesting ways they can affect the unrestricted transfer and possession of cultural objects. If this is what some are aiming at, they are well on the way. The time will surely come when one may wonder whether the rigid and disdainful attitude is a positive contribution to harmonious international relations.

    Kwame Opoku.

  2. v.kalyani said,

    08.03.10 at 12:06 pm

    I think there should not be so much of fuss and ego in retuning the cultural objects of other countries. It is justifiable that some countries want to display the interesting objects in their own museums which may be belonging to other countries, so as to showcase the history of civilisation and culture of other countries. But they must understand that it is more important to the people of a country to know their history than the people of other countries.

    If at all the Britishers, Americans, French and other people want to tell others history to make their museum collection more interesting and knowledgeable, they can be given such objects by the owners of those for a short exhibition but not on a permanent basis.

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