China punishes Christie's for auction of relics

China France Auction

A tourist takes picture of the posters advertising an exhibit showing sculptures of bronze heads from the Chinese zodiac disappeared in 1860, when Fr

China Saint Laurent Auction

In this Feb. 25, 2009 file photo, tourists visit the water fountain site where sculptures of bronze heads from the Chinese zodiac disappeared in 18

China Saint Laurent Auction

In this Feb. 19, 2009 file photo, a Chinese man rests near palm prints made on snow at the ruins of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, China. Beijin

Beijing swiftly moved to punish auction house Christie's with tightened customs rules Thursday after its protests failed to stop the sale of two imperial bronze sculptures taken from China nearly 150 years ago.
The move signals China's resolve in its campaign to rescue pieces of its cultural heritage now scattered around the world _ but the impact of the new rules on the auction house, if any, was not clear.
The disputed 18th century fountainheads _ heads of a rat and a rabbit _ were sold to an unidentified telephone bidder or bidders Wednesday for 28 million euros ($36 million) as part of an auction of art works owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent.
China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage condemned the sale of the two bronzes and said it would affect Christie's interests in the country, ordering tighter inspections of all cultural relics that the auction house seeks to bring in or out of mainland China.
Border authorities will single out Christie's artifacts and demand certificates of legal ownership and documented details of ownership history, the agency said. Items lacking sufficient documentation will be stopped.
The auction of the bronzes "goes against the spirit of relevant international conventions and the international common understanding that cultural relics should be returned to their country of origin," the administration said in a statement.
The sculptures disappeared from the Old Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing when French and British forces sacked and burned it at the close of the second Opium War in 1860. Chinese view the devastation of the palace, the country residence of emperors which was full of art treasures, as a national humiliation.
The palace bronzes are part of a dozen animal heads from the Chinese zodiac that formed an elaborate water clock fountain designed by Jesuit missionaries. The 12 heads marked time by spouting water.
The administration vowed to continue its efforts to recover similarly looted Chinese relics through "all necessary channels."
"People in government, academia and even on a local level have long been trying to get all these items back," said Tracey Lie Dan Lu, director of the Centre for Cultural Heritage Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Now the Chinese government is making it more clear, sending the message out to the world so that people will pay more attention to this issue."
The dispute underscores the challenges China faces in trying to recover numerous cultural objects stolen more than a century ago, when plunder was a given in warfare. China estimates there are more than 1 million relics outside the country, scattered among 200 museums in 47 countries.
The Chinese have in recent years intensified efforts to retrieve its relics. When official protests against similar auctions failed, state-owned companies and rich Chinese individuals stepped in to buy the pieces.
State conglomerate China Poly Group bought the Summer Palace tiger head for nearly $2 million from Sotheby's and the monkey and ox heads for $2.05 million from Christie's. The pig and horse heads were later purchased by Chinese business figures for millions of dollars and donated to China. The fates of the other five are unknown.
Christie's auction of the rat and rabbit bronzes did not break any international agreements, but China argued the relics are a part of its cultural heritage and should be returned.
Christie's stood by the sale, saying the pieces' legal ownership had been "clearly confirmed."
"We continue to believe that sale by public auction offers the best opportunity for items to be repatriated as a result of worldwide exposure," the firm said in a statement. It declined to answer further questions about the potential impact of the new rules on its operations in China.
The company's sales in mainland China are carried out through licensing partner Forever International Auction Company Limited, an auction house in Beijing. Its sales in 2008 totaled $6.2 million (40 million yuan), according to a statement on Christie's Web site. In Hong Kong, sales last year totaled $452.3 million, it said.
Christie's three-day sale of Saint Laurent's collection brought a total of more than euro373 million ($484 million) and set a world record for the most valuable private collection sold at auction.