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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 Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2009

National pride: A bronze pig's head, one of 12 zodiac sculptures that once graced the Imperial Summer Palace.

China's Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program



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.

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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.