Heritage body vows better strategy on lost relics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2009, 12:00am

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has pledged to heed public calls for a better strategy relating to lost Chinese relics overseas after it was criticised for failing to be more active in opposing the controversial auction of two bronze animal heads at Christie's in Paris last month.

During an online interview with China News Service, the administration's director, Shan Jixiang, said the auction would raise awareness about protection of the mainland's cultural heritage and related legal issues.

Mr Shan said authorities would make more resources available for future research into lost Chinese relics and compilation of a database of lost items.

He reaffirmed the government's resolve to pursue looted relics using diplomacy and international treaties.

However, Hainan University associate law professor Wang Lin said the chances of repatriating looted relics via legal channels were slim even though China said it would reserve its right to do so when it signed an international treaty on heritage protection in 1997.

He noted that requests for looted items via diplomacy had had little success over the years, since such efforts could lead to situations such as when Pierre Berge demanded better human rights protection in Tibet and a return of the Dalai Lama as conditions for the return of the heads. Mr Berge was French owner of the two bronze heads looted from Beijing's Summer Palace by French troops during the opium wars in the mid 19th century,

'So grass-roots efforts to pursue looted items might follow unsuccessful attempts via country-to-country requests for the return of such items,' Professor Wang said.

A group of lawyers linked with the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe, a Paris-based non-profit organisation, sought an injunction at a Paris court to stop an auction of the two heads. However, the case was dismissed because the court ruled the lawyers and association had no legal standing to represent China.

The sculptures, part of the art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and Mr Berge, his partner, sold for HK$153 million each at the Paris auction. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage then threatened Christie's with punitive measures, including closer scrutiny of its business activities in China.

Then it turned out that a prominent Chinese collector and auctioneer, Cai Mingchao, said he was the winning bidder but would not pay, an apparent move to sabotage the auction. Mr Cai said he had decided not to pay because the new punitive measures against Christie's would make it impossible to bring the two bronzes into the country.

However, Mr Shan said the new measures would target Christie's only when it applied to bring relics into and out of the country and would not affect the return of relics.