Paris art auction sparks call for return of bronze sculptures


CHINA HAS demanded the immediate return of two bronze animal-head sculptures taken from the summer palace in Beijing during the opium wars in the 19th century and now up for auction by the estate of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

The Qing dynasty bronzes of a rabbit’s head and a rat’s head will come under the hammer at Christie’s in the Grand Palais in Paris, and are among 700 pieces in the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection that are expected to raise as much as €300 million to set up a foundation for Aids research.

Chinese patriots want the bronze zodiac heads returned to China and a group of volunteer lawyers have threatened a lawsuit to block the sale.

“Everyone knows that the related objects were plundered by the joint Anglo-French forces during the second opium war and are precious artefacts which have been overseas for many years,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news briefing.

China’s turbulent history in the 19th and 20th century has led to the scattering of more than one million priceless relics in some 200 museums in 27 countries, according to Xinhua news agency.

One of the worst instances of looting took place after the first opium war (1839-1842), when British, Russian and other foreign troops annexed parts of China.

The two bronze heads are from a group of 12 zodiac animals made between 1756 and 1759 under the supervision of Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione, and were part of a waterclock fountain in Yuanmingyuan, the old summer palace. The palace was set ablaze and its treasures plundered and scattered by British and French troops in October 1860.

The sale of a tiger head from the same fountain in 2000 by Christie’s rival Sotheby’s sparked protests in Hong Kong. The fountain’s horse head was offered by Sotheby’s in September 2007 but was bought privately by Macau billionaire Stanley Ho for €6.6 million and donated to China.

Mr Ho bought the fountain’s boar head at a sale in 2003, and gave it to Beijing’s Poly Art Museum. The museum also has the monkey and ox.

The 1995 UN Unidroit Convention limits claims on stolen artefacts to within 50 years of their theft.

The auction takes place from February 23rd to 25th and the heads are expected to fetch €8 million to €10 million each.