March 3, 2009

Cai Mingchao and the Yves Saint Lauren sculptures

Posted at 10:12 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

More coverage of the peculiar ending to the current chapter of the row over the disputed Chinese artefacts auctioned from the collection of Yves Saint Lauren. Whether his actions were right or wrong, they have had great success in highlighting the problems that arise when items such as this are sold whilst their ownership is disputed.

The Globe & Mail (Canada)

Bidder butts heads with Christie’s over looted art
Sources: BBC, CNN, Washington Times, McClatchy
March 3, 2009

BEIJING — For 150 years, the bronze heads of the rabbit and rat have passed from one rich Western owner to the next, symbols of what many Chinese consider a time of national humiliation.

Where they end up next remains in doubt after a Chinese collector says he won a controversial auction for the two 18th-century artworks last week in Paris, but refuses to pay the price, which is over $50-million.

Cai Mingchao, who works as an adviser to a foundation that seeks to repatriate looted Chinese treasures, told a press conference yesterday he was the caller who made the winning bid for the sculptures by telephone last week during an auction of goods belonging to the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent that was managed by Christie’s auction house.

Mr. Cai said he won’t pay because the sculptures, looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860 when it was razed by British and French forces during the Second Opium War, should not have been put up for sale.

He said he made the bid “on behalf of all Chinese people.

“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,” he said at the brief press conference in Beijing. “What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid.”

The rabbit and the rat are signs of the Chinese zodiac and were severed from a clock fountain in the Summer Palace that was said to be a favourite of the Qing emperor. Each of the heads sprayed water for two hours a day, and all 12 sprayed in unison at noon. Five of the 12 heads have already been brought back to China, while five others remain unaccounted for.

It is not known whether the five missing pieces – the goat, dragon, rooster, dog and snake – were destroyed, or are being held in private collections.

Mr. Cai’s position echoes that of the Chinese government, which sought to block last week’s sale, saying it was deeply offensive and against the “cultural rights” of the Chinese people. The government warned that the sale would have “serious effects” on Christie’s business in China.

The situation became even more charged last week when Pierre Bergé, who was Mr. Saint Laurent’s business partner and companion until his death last year, offered to return the heads for free if China agreed to “give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory.

“If they do that, I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing,” Mr. Bergé said in a radio interview. The Chinese government considers Tibet to be an inviolable part of its own territory and accuses the Dalai Lama of working to destabilize the country.

The 44-year-old Mr. Cai has paid out vast sums in the past to acquire looted art and bring it back to China, most famously in 2006 when he paid $19-million at a Sotheby’s auction to purchase a rare bronze Buddha from the Ming dynasty era. But there has been rising disapproval of such sales, with many Chinese commentators comparing them to ransoms paid to kidnappers.

“Why should we play the game according to the rules of gangsters?” one Beijing resident wrote on the popular website.

While some website posters worried that Mr. Cai’s deception would make China look bad, most hailed him for protecting the relics, at least temporarily. “China has an old saying: ‘Deal with a man as how he deals with you,’ ” one person from the southern city of Guangdong wrote.

Christie’s would not confirm that Mr. Cai was the winning bidder, saying only that the buyer had until tomorrow to pay the agreed price, after which it might be put up again for auction.

“If someone doesn’t pay, we try to work through the process with the buyer and the seller,” said Kate Malin, a spokeswoman for Christie’s in Hong Kong.

According to Christie’s regulations, the company can hold the defaulting buyer liable for the total amount due. One of the directors of the foundation Mr. Cai was representing seems to acknowledge the foundation may be liable. “The fund faces great pressure and risks by bidding for the two sculptures, but this is an extraordinary method taken in an extraordinary situation, which successfully stopped the auction,” said Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of the fund. Art in the right place?

History is full of disputes over antiquities, many of which have yet to be resolved.

Elgin Marbles

The British Museum is in a dispute with the Greek government over repatriation of the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in Athens in 1806 by Lord Elgin and brought back to Britain with the approval of the Ottoman authorities who at the time ruled over Greece.

Rosetta Stone

The British Museum is also resisting attempts by Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, to give up the famed Rosetta Stone – named after the northern Egyptian town of Rosetta where it was found in 1799 – an artifact crucial to the decipherment of hieroglyphs.

Bust of Queen Nefertiti

Berlin’s Egyptian Museum is in dispute with Dr. Hawass over ownership of the bust of the 18th-dynasty Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, which forms the centrepiece of the museum’s collection.

Koh-i-Noor Diamond

Five countries lay claim to the jewel, which is part of the British Crown jewels, having been presented to Queen Victoria by Lord Dalhousie in June, 1850, after the British annexation of the Punjab in India.

Axum Obelisk

The 1,700-year old Axum Obelisk is regarded as one of Ethiopia’s treasures. Italian troops seized the obelisk in 1937 and took it to Rome, where it remained, despite a 1947 UN agreement to return it to Ethiopia, until 2005, when it was returned.


Last month, the Iraq Museum of Antiquities opened for the first time since much of the collection vanished in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. A spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism said that more than 9,400 artifacts are still missing.

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1 Comment »

  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    03.11.09 at 6:12 pm

    In listing disputed artefacts, there was an omission of looting of the Benin Bronzes. This is one of the clearest cases of injustice which the British should try to resolve. The bronzes were looted in 1897 after a brutal attack on Benin, the deposition of the King, the killing of innocent women and children by the British Army and the burning of Benin City. In the meanwhile the British Museum has sold many of the Bronzes and refuses even to acknowledge demands for return by the Benin Royal Family and the Government of Nigeria. The British Museum is not even making reconciliatory gestures towards Benin but is more involved in developing more and more absurd reasons for retaining the bronzes. The latest argument is that the materials used in the bronzes came from Europe! There is really something wrong with this attitude and the position of the British Museum is not worthy of the British people. Kwame Opoku.

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