The Call at the Last Minute — Christie’s Auctioning Relics From Yuanming Yuan

Bronze Rat head Statue
Bronze Rat head Statue

I have been watching the progress of the story for a while about Christie’s auctioning bronze relics from Royal Summer Palace. The collections of Saint Laurent Sale have been called a “sale of the century” which could restore market confidence.

Now here is the updated news on most of the Western media. And I will give a summary of Chinese reports after it.

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From AP news: A Chinese-backed group is asking a Paris judge to suspend the sale of bronze relics looted in the 19th century and now part of a major auction of the estate of late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The disputed items are two fountainheads, sculptures of a rat head and rabbit that disappeared from the former summer palace on the outskirts of Beijing in 1860, when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. Sayag submitted the request to halt the sale of the bronzes on behalf of APACE, a group mandated by the Chinese government to protect Chinese art on the world market. The Chinese government asked APACE to try to suspend the sale while it seeks other solutions.

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APACE is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help European people to better know and understand China through the protection and promotion of the Chinese cultural heritage. To my knowledge, it is not a governmental organization.

Meantime, a group of Chinese lawyers headed by Yang Liu are also in Paris and seeking legal channels in hopes of  cancelling or delaying the auction of the bronze statues.  But for a long time, the group had the trouble finding a plaintiff as no government organization has been willing to get involved.

“Auctioning cultural objects looted in war time not only offends the Chinese people and undermines their cultural rights but also violates relevant international conventions,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Chinese media reports. The conventions are vague, however, and the statement has more of a moral validity than legal power. Considering the boycott of Carrefour  in the protest of French interruption of Olympic Relay, the Chinese government clearly does not want to stir the pot again.

The AP report stated “the Chinese government asked APACE to try to suspend the sale.”  But there lacks any proof in written documents of such a request. WHO from the government AT WHAT TIME asked SPECIFICALLY for WHAT? I cannot find any information to show that APACE is sanctioned by Chinese government, nor could I believe any government official would ask a non-official organization to do something formaly. At the most, there could be some expression of concern. But “to ask” is just too vague to grasp the the relationship between APACE and the Chinese government.

Yang Liu, Head of the Volunteer Legal Team
Yang Liu, Head of the Volunteer Legal Team

The story went on about the same about Liu and his volunteer legal team. Even though they have won support unaminously from the Chinese citizens, all they could do was to contact the media. But the media has not made the news a headline, probably because China is overwhelmed by the extreme patriotism now and to report it in full scale may be against the government’s interest. In the end, they found “The Global Aixinjueluo Family Clan,”  a civil society registered in Hong Kong, has agreed to be the plaintiff. Aixinjueluo is the clan name of the emperors of the Qing Dynasty so it can be somehow related, but the fact that the plaintiff is a non-governmental organization from Hong Kong to me demonstrates the stance of the Chinese government.

China and France signed the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which stipulates that any cultural object looted or lost because of reasons of war should be returned without any limitation of time span. But if Liu wins the case, then half of the Chinese arts collection at Lourve would probably have to be returned for the same reason.

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Fountain with Chinese Zodiac Animals (Courtesy to Xinhua Net)
Fountain with Chinese Zodiac Animals (Courtesy to Xinhua Net)

PS: Here is some background.

The 12 zodiac animal statues were lost during the Second Opium War in China. Five of them are now returned to China: Ox, monkey, tiger, pig and horse. There are still five missing: dragon, snake, sheep, rooster and dog. The current two bronze statues (rat and rabbit) in the upcoming Cristie’s auction complete the zodiac. The twelve statues were originally placed in an arched fountain of the Calm Sea Pavilion at the Summer Palace. Each day is divided into 12 units, with each unit equivalent to exactly two hours.  Thus, at each unit time, the corresponding animal fountain would spray water as a way to report time. The picture is a modern interpretation of the imaginary fountain if it were restored. Apparently, the scene would only happen in test phase since not all fountains would work at the same time based on its original design.

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