November 3, 2008

Plundered Chinese treasures to be sold

Posted at 2:11 pm in Similar cases

It seems that other than being returned to their original locations, looted artefacts suffer one of three fates – they are either kept in museums with no chance of return, they are lost forever, or they enter private hands & are exchanged between collections on occasion – a tantalising flash of stolen property in front of the original owners eyes. If it is purchased back by the original owners at this point, then it in some way validates the action of looting – on the other hand, if they do not buy it, then they are no closer to regaining possession & in most cases someone else makes a profit.

This case is of course made more interesting the looting was done by another Lord Elgin – the son of the one who took the Marbles from Athens.

The Guardian

Chinese fury at sale of plundered treasures
* Tania Branigan in Beijing
* The Guardian,
* Monday November 3 2008

The row spans two continents and more than 140 years. But it has boiled up again following the involvement of a fashion legend and an eminent auction house.

Chinese officials are fuming at plans to sell national treasures from an imperial palace sacked and burned by British and French forces during the second opium war. One described the staggering estimated price of the objects – around £9m each – as “robbery”.

The designer Yves Saint Laurent acquired the bronze sculptures of rat and hare heads for his immense art collection. But following his death in June they are to be auctioned alongside his other relics and artworks, in what some have called the sale of the century. Christie’s estimates that it will raise more than €200-300m (£160m-235m) in total.

The destruction of the imperial summer residence Yuanmingyuan – known for its magnificence as the “Versailles of the east” – remains one of the most sensitive incidents in Chinese history and the fate of its treasures a highly contentious issue.

China Daily described the bronzes as “war plunder”, although officials have acknowledged the difficulty of demonstrating that the items were removed from China illegally. Christie’s says there is a clear legal title for each piece.

China has repeatedly requested the return of the bronzes and reportedly tried to negotiate a private sale – but was outraged by the sum said to have been requested: 200m yuan (£18m).

“This is no different from robbery!” Zong Tianliang, spokesman at Yuanmingyuan Garden Administration, told reporters. “Two hundred million yuan is no doubt beyond reach of any ordinary institutions and individuals. This kind of craziness does no good to the relics itself and the culture it bears.”

He added: “We do respect the business rules of auction companies as well as the operating mechanism of arts markets. But it’s definitely unacceptable to put plunder under the hammer.”

Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of China’s Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Fund, told China Daily that it tried to recover the relics from agents in 2003 and 2004, but were offered the “unreasonable and unacceptable” price of $10m (£6m) for each piece.

The animals, along with the 10 others, which constitute the Chinese zodiac, once made up a vast fountain in Yuanmingyuan. Water would spout from their mouths to mark the hours. But in 1860 Lord Elgin, then British high commissioner to China, ordered the destruction of the palace in retaliation for the torture and execution of European and Indian hostages.

Five of the heads have already been repatriated, but experts fear the other five may have been destroyed.

China Poly Group bought the ox, monkey and tiger bronzes for between £600,000 and £1.2m each, while the national fund bought the boar from an American collector for around $1m in 2003. In September last year a Hong Kong entrepreneur bought the horse for £5.5m as a gift to the nation.

Saint Laurent’s partner, Pierre Bergé, who co-owned the collection, will use the proceeds to create a foundation for scientific research and the fight against Aids.

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