March 7, 2009

The perils of art auctions

Posted at 12:08 pm in Similar cases

Many disputed artefacts only appear above the radar during the rare moments when they change hands. As a result, it is hardly surprising, that the relatively light regulation of auction houses is also brought to the fore when various parties are making claims that they are dealing in potentially stolen property.

The Times

March 7, 2009
Richard Morrison on art auctions
Chinese sabotage at Christie’s is a warning to every owner of antiquities

One man’s terrorist, it’s often said, is another man’s freedom-fighter. Happily, there was no violence at Christie’s “auction of the century” in Paris last week. But the fury of the reactions to an act of sabotage by an incensed Chinese bidder has rocked the arts world.

The sale was of the late Yves Saint Laurent’s art collection. It went for a cool £330 million. But £28 million of that won’t be paid. It was the winning bid for two 18th-century bronzes, once part of a set of 12 animal figureheads on a water-clock in the Summer Palace outside Beijing. The fountain must have been rather cute in its prime. Each animal in turn spouted water for two hours a day. Then at noon all 12 would effusively spray in aquatic unison.

But in 1860, during the Opium Wars (a shameful episode in British imperial history), a British and French force stormed the Summer Palace and burnt it. The 12 animal bronzes disappeared there and then. There’s no evidence that they were looted, but …

Well, five are now back in China (four of them, ironically, in a Beijing museum run by the nation’s biggest arms dealer). They were bought legitimately in the West. But there is indignation in China that Chinese bidders have to spend millions simply to retrieve artefacts that were looted from the country. And the scale of the looting was enormous. China estimates that 1.6 million relics stolen from the country before 1949 are now in foreign museums, and an even larger number in private hands.

That’s the background to the events in Paris last week. The Chinese got wind of the glitzy Yves Saint Laurent auction – how could they not? – and decided to make a high-profile protest. First a team of Chinese lawyers went to a French court to seek an injunction stopping the sale of the bronzes. They failed. So a Chinese dealer called Cai Mingchao, trusted by Christie’s as a bona-fide telephone bidder (he had recently paid £13 million at Sothebys for a Ming-dynasty bronze), decided on a more audacious plan. He bid for the bronzes, secured them – and then announced that he had no intention of paying the bill. He’d done it, he said, to draw attention to this sale of looted treasure.

Cunning. Christie’s could sue for the money, but that would allow the Chinese to make even more play of the accusation that the auctioneers are handling stolen goods. Or they could try re-auctioning the bronzes. But who would buy them, knowing what is now known about their dubious provenance? And of course the implications go far wider. Any auction house will think twice in future about selling mysteriously acquired Chinese artefacts.

Where does this leave all those great Western museums and private collections stuffed with relics that were, if not exactly looted, then removed from their countries of origin in circumstances (usually colonial pressure) that left little room for argument? Will this add to the perennial clamour for the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, or the Rosetta Stone to Egypt? Will the Queen be forced to take a screwdriver to the Crown Jewels, yank out the Koh-i-noor diamond, and return it to India, from where it was “liberated” in 1850?

Legally, there’s no compulsion. Treaties such as the 1970 Unesco Convention requiring the return of illicitly traded artefacts can’t be applied retrospectively. The 1970 Convention could (and should) be vigorously wielded to hunt down the 9,400 artefacts disgracefully looted from the Iraq Museum of Antiquities in the wake of the 2003 invasion by British and American troops. But it’s of no relevance to treasures looted before 1970.

And that’s an awful lot of art. The CIA says that one fifth of the world’s cultural treasures changed hands illegally between 1939 and 1945 alone, with about half of that loot still missing. But who defines what is loot? The Russians, for instance, say the treasures they took from Germany in 1945 were legitimate compensation for the 427 Russian museums ransacked by the Nazis. They regard them as “war booty”, not loot. A fine distinction, you might think – but it means that the Russians can claim the moral, if not the legal, right to retain all the art they removed.

And claiming the moral high ground is a big part of this debate. That’s what gives India the right (in Indian eyes) to demand that a forthcoming auction of Gandhi’s personal possessions be halted in New York. And that, presumably, was also the thinking behind the remark this week by the fashion-king Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s partner (and thus, presumably, still the owner of the two bronzes). He said the Chinese could have the disputed bronzes – provided that they “observe human rights, give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama”.

A facetious and irrelevant point? Possibly. A below-the-belt blow? Definitely. But it has really irritated the Chinese, because it reminds the world that while they are moaning about the imperialist humiliations inflicted on them by the West in the 19th century, they are busy inflicting similar humiliations on others.

Who said that art should never be mixed with politics? The two can almost never be separated.

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