Battle must continue for return of spoils of war

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 February, 2009, 12:00am

China's objections to two bronze animal heads looted from the Old Summer Palace 150 years ago going on the auction block have been overruled by a French court. The relics have been determined to have been legally bought by Yves Saint Laurent; Christie's will go ahead with their sale today as part of the sell-off of the private art collection of the late fashion designer and his partner. Chinese have a right to be disappointed, but in the eyes of the law, nothing more can be done. The possibility of the artefacts being returned to their rightful place now rests with a generous owner or, in the absence of such a person, pressure from the court of public opinion.

A third option - China's purchase of the sculptures of a rabbit and a rat - have been rejected by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which does not buy at auctions. Two previous attempts to buy them through the special fund to rescue lost cultural relics were thwarted by unreasonable asking prices. If pre-auction estimates of up to US$13 million each are any guide, the US$10 million that was asked for then will look like a bargain. Whatever the market price, though, there is an undeniable underlying argument: whatever was stolen, no matter how long ago and regardless of what has happened since, should be given back.

Beijing has recovered five of the 12 heads that were looted by Anglo-French forces during the burning of the palace at the height of the second opium war. They are remarkable objects and testament to the artistic skills of Chinese craftsmen. The whereabouts of the remaining five are unknown. Bringing all the pieces together again is not just a matter of history and pride, but also one of righting wrongs.

The heads were stolen at a time of different values. Wealthy nations waged war to build empires. The victors took what they captured as their own. Pillaging of culture by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union led to a marked shift in international attitude; seizing the spoils of war is now no longer acceptable.

Since 1954, four major international instruments have been put in place to protect cultural property. China and France signed the last - the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. This stipulates that any item of culture looted or lost because of war should be returned without limitation of time span. Museums with such items in their collections for hundreds of years have difficulty coming to terms with such rules. There are obvious problems as well when the items have been stolen and at a later date, legally ended up in private hands through having being bought.

Such is the case with the bronzes. China has tried to buy them and failed. It is good that it then tried to seek legal redress instead of making political statements. A court has ruled against Beijing and the issue must now turn to righting a historic wrong.

Four of the animal heads have been bought privately and given to the government. Such generosity should not be necessary given the circumstances, but may be needed. Perhaps the current owner will have a change of heart, or the new one may hand them over as gifts to the nation. Regardless, international law and public sentiment are in China's favour; what was looted or stolen must be returned.