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Christie's auction controversy reveals dilemma
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By Fu Shuangqi and Chang Ailing

Two bronze animal sculptures, looted from a Chinese royal garden 149 years ago, will be auctioned in Paris late this month. They symbolize a dilemma China is facing in retrieving many of its cultural treasures from abroad.

"We wrote to Mr. Pierre Berge in October last year after learning the two sculptures will be auctioned but did not receive any reply yet," said Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of the National Treasure Funds of China (NTFC), a non-governmental organization working since 2002 to return the country's historical relics.

Niu's foundation was willing to negotiate with the owner on how to bring the two sculptures back to China on the condition they would not be auctioned, he said.

The bronze rabbit and rat heads were among 12 animal head sculptures that formed the zodiacal clepsydra decorating the Calm Sea Pavilion in the Old Summer Palace of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795).

They were looted when the palace was burned down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.

The NTFC successfully mediated the return of one of the heads in 2003. With about 7 million yuan (1.01 million U.S. dollars), donated by Macao billionaire Stanley Ho, the foundation bought the pig head sculpture from a U.S. collector.

"We are not always so lucky," Niu said. "The foundation depends on public donations. Many cases fail because we did not have enough money."

In 2003, the NTFC contacted representatives of the owner to buy the rabbit and rat head sculptures but the two sides failed to reach an agreement on the price.

"They asked for 10 million U.S. dollars for each but we only spent about 1 million on the pig head. We thought the price was too high," Niu said.

At the upcoming auction, the relics were expected to fetch 8 million to 10 million euros (about 10.4 million to 13 million U.S. dollars) each.

Unlike the NTFC who does not purchase from auctions, some Chinese collectors have been able to buy cultural artifacts and bring them back to the country. Three animal head sculptures were purchased by a Chinese company at two auctions held by Christie's and Sotheby's in Hong Kong in 2000. Stanley Ho privately bought the horse head and then donated it to the government. The whereabouts of the other five statues is unknown.

Despite those efforts, China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) openly voiced its objection to both auctions and purchases of cultural objects which were exported illegally, including those looted in wars.

Song Xinchao, director of the SACH museum department, said authorities favored retrieving looted cultural relics through legal or diplomatic proceedings but also welcomed donations from foreign collectors.

"To buy them back means we acknowledge they were taken out of our country legally," Song told the Guangming Daily last November. "It will be a compromise to the wrong thing and even an indulgence in crimes."

Legal and diplomatic retrieval is based on several international conventions China signed, including the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

A team of 81 Chinese lawyers are planning to sue Pierre Berge in France if the auction of the two sculptures is not stopped.

The fact that the conventions could not be applied retroactively was a major obstacle to such legal proceedings, said Wang Yunxia, a professor of cultural relics law at Beijing-based Renmin University.

"That means the convention applies only to cultural objects that are stolen or illegally traded after the convention takes effect."

An estimated 1.64 million Chinese relics are owned by foreign museums, SACH said. Even more than that are owned by private collectors. A great number were looted, stolen and smuggled out of China between the 1860s and 1949 when the country was subjected to colonial invasion and civil wars.

"I think the best way to get the relics back is through diplomatic channels. An agreement between Chinese and foreign governments is the most effective and direct way to tackle this issue," Wang said. "If an agreement is not practical in the short term, we could at least start negotiations on a certain relic."

Niu with the NTFC admitted the government channel might be the most effective to retrieve these cultural relics, but this method can't be used on every single case.

"To purchase them at a reasonable price is still the most practical way," Niu said.

"I know what we want to do is difficult. But we can't hold back because of difficulties. A breakthrough will be made only when you start to make it," said Liu Yang, one of the lawyers working to get the rabbit and rat heads back through legal means.

(Xinhua News Agency February 16, 2009)

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