January 22, 2009

Yves Saint Laurent and the Eighth Earl of Elgin

Posted at 1:40 pm in Similar cases

In Beijing, the Eighth Earl of Elgin has a similar reputation to that which his Father (The Seventh Earl) enjoys in Greece. China is now fighting back, trying to block auctions involving artefacts that were looted by the Eighth Earl.

The Times

January 21, 2009
China tries to halt Yves Saint Laurent art sale
Charles Bremner in Paris and Jane Macartney in Beijing

China is trying to block the sale in Paris of two 18th-century bronze animal heads from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent, the late French couturier, because they were looted from Beijing by a marauding Franco-British army.

A team of Beijing lawyers is to lodge a suit with French courts to prevent the sale during a three-day auction by Christie’s from February 23.

The items, the heads of a rat and a rabbit that were taken in 1860 from the Yuan Ming Yuan garden, the Imperial Summer Palace, on the edge of Beijing, have an estimated sale price of between £16-20million.

“We hope they stop the sale and order the owner of the stolen items to return them,” said Liu Yang, one of 67 Chinese lawyers working on the case.

Christie’s has dismissed the Chinese claim. “If we had to give these two pieces free to China, we would have to hand back the [Ancient Egyptian] Obelisk on the Place de La Concorde and numerous paintings in the Louvre,” a Christie’s employee told lepoint.fr news site.

The rat and rabbit were among 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac that were part of a fountain built for the Qing dynasty emperor by French and Italian Jesuit priests. They were allegedly taken in 1860 when allied French and British armies under the command of Lord Elgin sacked the palace after the imperial Government murdered British diplomats. The Chinese suit has echoes of Greece’s demand for the return from the British Museum of the Marbles that his father, the seventh Lord Elgin, removed from the Parthenon.

Mr Liu has worked in recent years to recover cultural treasures lost overseas during the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries. He indicated to the French media that he was working on behalf of the administration of the Yuan Ming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) and the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Fund. China has refused to pay for the relics, saying they are the property of the nation.

Five of the 12 heads, regarded as some of the finest cast pieces in China, have already been recovered. China Poly Group bought the ox, monkey and tiger bronzes for between £600,000 and £1.2million each. The national fund purchased the boar from an American collector for about £500,000 in 2003 and last September a Hong Kong entrepreneur paid £5.5million for the horse as a gift to the nation. The other five heads are missing.

Christie’s said that Mr Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, his partner, had acquired the items legally and that they had “a clear and detailed provenance”. They had passed through the hands of various European collectors before ending up in the hands of Mr Saint Laurent and Mr Bergé.

The dispute over the bronzes follows a campaign by Beijing since last spring to punish France for President Sarkozy’s support for the Dalai Lama and criticism of Chinese policy towards Tibet.

Christian Deydier, a French Asian art specialist, accused the Chinese of carrying out a publicity stunt. “These objects were looted by the Chinese themselves as much as the Westerners,” he told le Figaro newspaper.

The art world has run out of superlatives for the Bergé-Saint Laurent collection, which includes Picassos, Gauguins and Matisses, and is expected to raise up to £300million.

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