Monday, February 23, 2009
Later today the massive art collection of the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent will go under the hammer.
He and his partner Pierre Berge amassed some 733 items, from paintings by Picasso to ancient Egyptian sculptures. They started collecting in the 1950s and their Paris apartment was stuffed with all kinds of beautiful objects that inspired Saint Laurent in his fashionable designs.
However, there are two highly prized objects that China is demanding back.
They are the bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, which were part of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing when it was looted by French and British forces in the Second Opium War in 1860.
There are 12 animals altogether and in 2007 casino magnate Stanley Ho was declared a hero for buying back the horse's head at an auction for about $9 million.
It's now displayed in the Lisboa Grand hotel in Macau, encased in a glass box with a bust of Ho in his younger years.
But back to the current auction. Christie's says the selling price is 10 million euros ($12.6 million) each, but China won't shell out for them.
It is demanding the animal heads be returned since they were stolen in the first place.
However Berge won't even entertain the idea, saying China would have to greatly improve its attitude on human rights before he would even consider handing them back. That doesn't help repair China-French relations...
China is now taking the legal route and a ruling is expected today on whether the bronzes should be handed back or included in the three-day sale.
Apparently some 80 Chinese lawyers are involved in the case, and they have even persuaded the Global Aixinjueluo Family Clan, a civil society registered in Hong Kong to be the plaintiff. The group consists of descendants of the emperors in the Qing Dynasty who were Manchus.
“The Old Summer Palace, which was plundered and burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, is our nation’s unhealed scar, still bleeding and aching,” Beijing lawyer Lui Yang said. “That Christie’s and Pierre Bergé would put them up for auction and refuse to return them to China deeply hurts our nation’s feelings.”
Why does China always use the argument that its nation's feelings is hurt? It just weakens its case.
Nevertheless, some experts in cultural-property issues say that items looted decades or centuries ago don't necessarily have to be repatriated if the country involved did not sign the 1995 UN Convention on the repatriation of stolen or illegally exported cultural relics.
While it may be legally impossible to get back, the experts suggest perhaps something like the bronze heads should be returned because of their historical significance.
However it seems both parties are adamant about getting their way with these prized items.
We'll have to see how it goes.
In the meantime, to be honest -- these animal heads are hardly beautiful in their artistic quality, but rather crude and generic... does China really want them back? And are they really worth $10 million each?