February 21, 2009

Yves Saint Lauren, China & the son of Lord Elgin

Posted at 12:09 pm in Similar cases

Despite attempts by China to block the sale of artefacts looted from Beijing & now in the collection of the late Yves Saint Lauren, the sale is still due to proceed.

A new & bizarre twist in the story is added by the seller’s offer to trade the artefacts in exchange for recognising human rights within China.

Christian Science Monitor

China protests Christie’s auction in Paris of relics
Legal efforts to retrieve two bronzes looted by Western troops in 1860 may fail. Another option: let wealthy donors buy them back.
By Peter Ford | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the February 20, 2009 edition

Beijing – A rat and a rabbit, emerging from a century and a half of peaceful seclusion, have found themselves in the eye of an international storm about their future, and the proper fate of looted artworks.

Once upon a time, the two animal heads, cast in bronze, adorned a water clock fountain in the Chinese emperor’s Summer Palace here. They were plundered when British and French troops ransacked and burned the palace buildings in 1860.

Next week, the sculptures are due to be auctioned in Paris, along with the rest of an art collection that belonged to the late couturier Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

China wants the statues back, but not at the expected $20-24 million sale price.

“China has incontrovertible ownership of these objects, which should be returned,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declared last week.

A group of Chinese lawyers, meanwhile, was planning to petition a Paris judge later this week for a suspension of the auction, due to be held Monday at the Grand Palais. “If we can delay the auction, we can sit down and negotiate a reasonable price,” says Liu Yang, who heads the volunteer legal team.

The rat and rabbit are just two of 12 Chinese zodiac animals that spouted water to tell the time in a fountain created for the Qianlong emperor, who built a number of European-style mansions in the fabulous Summer Palace park during his 18th-century rule.

The animal heads arouse strong passions in China, where the government has long presented the looting of the Summer Palace as the nadir of a century of national humiliation from which only the Communist revolution could rescue the country.

The “imperial objects are an absent presence in a tale of loss, humiliation, and the recovery of national sovereignty,” says James Hevia, a professor at the University of Chicago and expert in European military traditions of plunder.

Most of the tens of thousands of artifacts looted disappeared into private collections forever. Recently, however, some of the bronze animal heads, beautifully cast to European designs, have come up for sale.

The Chinese government refuses to buy them, on the grounds that would legalize theft. “If your belongings are stolen and you see them in the market the next day you do not buy them back. You call the police,” says Xie Chensheng, the doyen of Chinese cultural relics scholars.

The authorities are not, however, averse to wealthy benefactors purchasing precious cultural items on behalf of the nation.

Nine years ago, the Poly Corporation, a state-owned weapons and real estate conglomerate, bought the monkey, tiger, and ox heads at auction in Hong Kong, when official protests from Beijing failed to stop the sale.

Since then Stanley Ho, a billionaire casino kingpin from Macau, has bought the pig and the horse, and donated them to Beijing museums. Five heads are still missing, and may no longer exist, experts fear.

Though it hurts to pay for something that belongs to you, says Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, a privately funded NGO, “if we want to recover relics sometimes we have to buy them.

“There’s no other way to bring them back” he adds. “If we don’t buy them when they are on the market we may never see them again.”

Mr. Niu was involved in secret negotiations several years ago to buy the rat and rabbit heads, he says, but the asking price of $10 million apiece was “robbery.”

At the time, Niu did not know that Mr. Saint Laurent was the owner of the pieces. Mr. Bergé is selling the whole of the collection he and Saint Laurent amassed in order to fund AIDS research. The sale is expected to raise as much as $375 million.

Christie’s, which is running the auction, has refused appeals from China to remove the animal heads from the catalog, and insists that the sale will go ahead. “For each and every item in this collection there is a clear legal title,” Christie’s said in a statement. “We strictly adhere to any and all local and international laws with respect to cultural property.”

Mr. Liu, the lawyer, would have liked to base his case on the 1995 Unidroit Convention, an international treaty that states, “[T]he possessor of a cultural object which has been stolen shall return it,” but France has not ratified it.

That leads some experts here to doubt whether Liu will prevail, and to suggest that the Chinese government should make direct representations to the French government. Those would be unlikely to bear fruit, however, since if Paris satisfied Beijing’s claim it would have to return half the objects in the Louvre, not to mention the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.

Indeed, says Professor Hevia, the chances that China will convince any collector or museum voluntarily to return looted treasures are “slim to none.” And if Liu’s court case turns out badly for him “there is nothing we can do about it,” laments Professor Xie.

Except, perhaps, to hope that Mr. Ho, or somebody like him, might be bidding on the other end of a telephone line next Monday.

Agence France Presse

China offered ‘relics for rights’ in YSL auction row

PARIS (AFP) — A dispute with China over cultural relics acquired by Yves Saint Laurent took a political twist Friday when the late designer’s partner offered to trade them against human rights.

China is demanding the return of two imperial bronzes that are part of a prized art collection assembled by Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, and which Berge is putting on the block February 23-25 in what has been called the “sale of the century.”

“I’m not about to give the Chinese presents, contrary to what they think,” said Berge, a businessman, patron of the arts and longtime rights campaigner.

“I am ready to give these Chinese heads to China if they are ready to recognise human rights,” he told French radio.

The fate of the rat’s head and rabbit’s head, worth up to 10 million euros (12.6 million dollars) apiece, will be examined just hours before the auction kicks off on Monday by a Paris judge.

The Monday 0930 GMT ruling follows a plea from a group demanding the two bronzes be withdrawn from the 732 works offered for sale at a giant auction expected to fetch up to 300 million euros (392 million dollars).

“We want the sale cancelled or delayed to give China the time to find a solution with France,” Bernard Gomez, who heads the Association to Protect Chinese Art in Europe (Apace), told AFP.

A group of Chinese lawyers have also launched a legal bid from Beijing to stop the auction.

Christie’s has consistently argued that there are no legal grounds to bar the sale of the two rare pieces.

The 18th century Qing dynasty bronzes are believed to be part of a collection of 12 inspired by the Chinese zodiac and to have been looted by British and French troops from the imperial Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing nearly 150 years ago.

“Auctioning cultural objects looted in war time not only offends the Chinese people and undermines their cultural rights but also violates relevant international conventions,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.

Questioned over the row, Berge said he and Saint Laurent had acquired the bronze heads legally through an established Paris antique dealer.

“These Chinese bronzes were looted 150 years ago in China in the same way as were the Parthenon frescoes in Athens that are now in the British Museum, along with many other looted pieces in museums worldwide,” Berge said.

“There is legislation and jurisprudence on this matter,” added the 78-year-old, who in 1989 financed a pro-democracy shelter in Paris to help dissidents and students following the Tiananmen protests.

After Saint Laurent’s death last June aged 71, Berge opted to part with what is viewed as one the world’s great private art collections, amassed over half a century by the pair.

It includes works by Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse as well as old masters, Art Deco pieces, Venetian enamels and the antique bronzes. The auction is being held at the Grand Palais in Paris before a crowd of 1,200 people.

Proceeds are to go to a Berge/Saint Laurent Foundation honouring the designer’s work and to a fund for scientific research and the fight against AIDS.

Christie’s told AFP on Friday that there were no legal obstacles to the sale of the Chinese cultural relics, due to take place Wednesday, the last day of the auction.

“These relics belong to Mr Berge and they have been in free circulation for many years,” Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie’s America’s, told AFP.

“We understand that there are sensitivities in China that have been aroused by the sale of these objects,” he said. “Our advice is that there is no legal restriction on them being bought or sold.”

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