March 17, 2009

Solving the issue of the Chinese bronzes statues

Posted at 2:21 pm in Similar cases

Whilst there may be a solution to the issue of the Chinese bronze sculptures being sold by the partner of Yves Saint Lauren, it is clear that there is not an easy option that will not leave one side feeling cheated. The sculptures have changed hands many times since leaving China, so the current owners feel that they hold no responsibility for occurrences long ago in the history of the artefacts.

Economic Observer Online

A Sober Look at Sorting out the Cultural Relic Scandal
From Lifestyle, issue no. 409, March 9, 2009
Translated by Zhang Junting

A rabbit and a rat removed from the Old Summer Palace; twenty-eight million euros in compensation; an invasion of Anglo-French into imperial Beijing, a Chinese legal team descending on Paris; a mysterious buyer’s irresistible offer and sudden refusal to pay; an auction and a demonstration; an heirloom, art-room, and nationalism abloom…

But before we delve into the heart of what may have been the most drama-packed auction in history, let’s rewind to its lengthy preface:

On October 6, 1860, after Emperor Xian Feng and his royal family had already escaped to Chengde, Anglo-French allied forces marched into Beijing. Without laying hands on the Forbidden City, which represented the central government, the “bandits” – as French writer Victor Hugo put it – instead plundered the Old Summer Palace, the private land of the royal family.

After the Anglo-French forces sacked and burned the palace, a group of bronze animal heads, representing the 12 Chinese zodiac, drifted on a prolonged journey to the unknown.

They passed from one private collector to the next, in France, England, and the US, before finally being shepherded by antique dealers and investors to auction houses.

The monkey, ox and tiger sculptures were taken to auctions by collectors from Taiwan. Though some Taiwanese antique brokers claimed they would never sell the animal heads to foreigners, one can only guess where they would be if not bought by China Poly Group and Macao entrepreneur He Hongqian, who later won the bronze heads for shockingly high prices and had them returned to China.

This year, the rat and rabbit sculptures kept by French collectors Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge went on auction at Christie’s in Paris, triggering a deluge of news coverage and outbursts of anger in China. When legal efforts to halt the auction failed, a Chinese art collector won the bid with 28 million euros, but afterwards refused to pay in the name of patriotism.

What’s a National Treasure?
Before 1989, most Chinese had not a clue what was going on at auctions in New York and London, for there was not one auction house in China.

By the time the bronzes were brought to public attention again in 2000, both nationalism and cultural confidence had ballooned, along with China’s rapid growth in GDP and the development of domestic media.

Chinese started calling for the return of looted relics to their motherland, and with the help of Chinese media, these unknown sculptures suddenly became “national treasures”.

In fact, what really means the most to collectors, dealers, auction houses, domestic media and investors is the term “national treasure”.

For sellers, the word can guarantee surging prices; for journalists, it delivers readership. Foundations and buyers can identify and associate themselves with the so-called “cultural value” and “national honor” attached to the term.

Meanwhile, no one pays attention to the concerns expressed by those prestigious scholars of cultural relics and architecture.

According to them, the animal heads should not be considered national treasures. The sculptures are neither artistically significant nor worth that much of money.

Interestingly enough, many auction houses such as Christie’s unanimously tried to conceal their ultimate commercial motive by campaigning to “help the return of cultural relics through auction”.

In the meantime, both domestic and foreign antique dealers, along with art brokers, made a fortune through sales under the banner of “return of the relics”, which has since 2000 become a hot subject.

However, most returned relics don’t appear to be that significant to neither Chinese history nor the research of traditional culture; instead, the biggest beneficiaries turned out to be antique dealers, collectors, buyers and auction houses.

Furthermore, the soaring price of cultural relics has sped up a new round of smuggling and illegal excavation. As a matter of fact, a larger number of cultural relics were stolen and traded during peacetime.

Global Justice to be Negotiated
Should today’s French collectors apologize or pay for the sin committed by some nameless persons 150 years ago, simply because they are of the same nationality?

Most Chinese are used to extending their “moral denouncement”. This is actually a key question when it comes to the legal complexity of the issue, however, the current international law, and even domestic law don’t support such “joint liability”.

China has experienced too many humiliations in its modern history, and that has led many Chinese to review the past when dealing with the outside world nowadays.

During the recent auction at Christie’s, many Chinese denounced the atrocities of the British and French allied forces. However, it’s questionable how helpful such historical injustices are to sorting out the current controversy.

Moreover, whether today’s French are willing or able to clean up the historical mess left by their predecessors doesn’t depend on how hot China’s rage burns. The fact is, both French and Chinese are living in present-day, and what really needs to be addressed are concrete problems challenging us currently. Even when facing problems leftover by history, such as the return of cultural relics, it’s much wiser to point out the mistakes that predecessors made, and try to talk with their descendants, thus striving for reasonable compensation. Most importantly, those who continue making money from historical injustices should be punished, through measures that can be universally accepted by different cultures.

The future of retrieving cultural relics is still worrying when taking into account different national interests and the number of times these items change hands, but it’s still possible to break the deadlock of “to return or not to return”. For example, as long as victims such as China and Egypt declare the ownership of controversial relics, for the time being, we don’t necessarily have to retrieve the relics preserved in foreign museums, with whom we should seek to reach wider agreements:

First, in order to compensate the country of origin and give its people more opportunities to see their cultural fruits, controversial cultural relics should be exhibited in these countries from time to time, either for free or under long-term, favorable conditions.

Second, beneficiaries such as the British Museum should provide public interest aid, such as free or favorable training programs, to support the preservation of cultural heritage in countries of origin.

Third, countries of origin have the right to urge foreign museums to take good care of their cultural relics, and if by any chance these relics are damaged while being kept in foreign museums due to human error, the country of origin should seek recourse through diplomatic or legal channels.

Though the above mentioned terms still need to be further discussed and negotiated, even the majority of the French and British public could agree on them, for justice is the most universal morality.

In a 2002 joint statement, though Louvre Museum in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and 17 other museums in Europe and the US tried to justify their collections of unknown origins, saying that “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation, but the people of every nation…”

If that’s the case, all we need to do is ask them to keep their promise. As we know, many legal terms regarding cultural relics were originally drafted by European experts, so sometimes they tend to protect their own interest groups. Thus victim countries such as China should make joint efforts to either modify the existent stipulations or draft new ones, while promoting more practical cooperative projects through diplomatic talks.

Additionally, the press, academic and cultural collection circles in China should keep up the moral pressure on relevant parties. For example, instead of bidding in auctions, it’s better for patriotic people like Cai Minchao to directly buy advertisements in all major newspapers in France and publish the original article by Victor Hugo, which recorded the history and denounced the French and British looters, together with the background story of this auction. In this way, more French people can understand the outrage surrounding the auction.

Distributive Justice
The Chinese government once declared in 1996 that the Chinese government reserves the right to retrieve cultural relics taken illegally in history. However, in my opinion, it should also be emphasized that no museum or private collector–foreign or Chinese–has the right to keep such relics.

Furthermore, the Chinese government will never recognize such ownership and will retain the right to modify or draft international laws in order retrieve such relics.

It’s time consuming to change or make new international laws through diplomatic channels, and as such this should only be part of our concentration. On the other hand, the National People’s Congress, other organs of government, and the public should focus more on improving domestic law to punish those who participate in this grey form of art dealing.

Just like America’s crackdown on foreign companies involved in weapons dealing with Iran, China can also pass similar act to punish any domestic or foreign company or individual that possesses or trades Chinese cultural relics of unknown origin. Measures may include restrictions or bans on their business activities in China. The government could even freeze their assets and restrict the movement of their board members.

When an auction house or collector is considered suspicious, relevant Chinese authorities have the right to investigate or file charges. Meanwhile, if the defendants don’t want to be punished or feel discontent with judgement, they would need to submit credible evidence to prove the legitimacy of the ownership of certain relics.

According to Wan Zhanyang, a scholar at the Central Socialism Institution, the National People’s Congress should make laws to prohibit any participation by Chinese citizens in the trade of looted cultural relics, so that “these stolen relics will completely devalued in international market.”

Not only do I agree with his suggestion, but also think any corporate or individual trade of illegal cultural relics with any auction house, antique shop or black-market should be further prohibitted to block the disposal of stolen relics, control the blackmarket price and combat the current smuggling of cultural relics.

A notice restricting Christie’s activities in China was released by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage after the auction, which instead of yielding any positive results, triggered public discontent of a state authority’s retaliation against a company. As a matter of fact, it would be far more open and fair if we make laws in advance.

If such laws do exist, then that means we can turn issues of an international nature into domestic ones, thus avoiding the trouble of endless negotiation. Furthermore, such laws can also prevent Chinese cultural relics in the blackmarket from appearing in auctions and exhibitions and deal a heavy blow to those who dream about making a fortune by trading them.

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