A legacy up for bidding

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 March, 2009, 12:00am

In October 1860, British and French soldiers burnt and looted Beijing's Summer Palace, forcing the Qing dynasty to sign the Convention of Peking. The treaty ceded Hong Kong and Kowloon to Britain - among other things - and formally ended the Second Opium War.

One and a half centuries on, Kowloon is once again part of China. But most of the relics looted in the British-French action are still far from home.

Hence the drama surrounding the Christie's auction of two Qing dynasty bronzes. Owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent, the bronze rat and rabbit heads - from a 12-signs-of-the-zodiac set that once graced the Summer Palace - are considered national property by the central government. When they were put up for auction in Paris, the government and Chinese media launched a war of words.

A team of Chinese lawyers attempted legal action to stop the auction. They were unsuccessful. Yves Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Berg?, further fanned the flames by saying he would give the bronzes back if China freed Tibet.

Amid all the controversy, Christie's went ahead and sold the bronzes for a staggering Euro14 million (HK$ 136.5 million) each. The punchline? The winning bidder was a Chinese collector who announced he had no intention of paying.

China is not alone in the fight to retrieve a looted cultural heritage. Egypt has been campaigning to retrieve the 2,000-year-old Rosetta Stone, which was the breakthrough in decoding hieroglyphics. The Greeks want the Elgin Marbles back - the British, who give both the stone and marbles pride of place in the British Museum, tried to placate them with a replica.

Those who argue for the return of looted treasures say 'theft is theft' and not returning them is immoral. The argument goes that, by law, any stolen object should be returned to its original owner, and cultural artefacts should be no exception, even if hundreds of years have elapsed.

Cultural property is enormously significant in a country's presentation of its history. Saint Laurent might have regarded the bronzes as simply art pieces or an investment, but for China they are far more than that. When artefacts are looted and not returned, the people of the country where they originated are denied the right to fully appreciate their own history and culture. No doubt Berg? would be irked if he had to travel to China to see the Arc de Triomphe.

But those who oppose restitution of ancient relics argue that many cultural properties would have been lost or destroyed if they had not been preserved by museums and collectors. The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan by the Taleban in 2001 is an example of just how vulnerable the world's cultural heritage is in a politically unstable environment.

Nevertheless a solution, some argue, for now politically stable and wealthy China is to buy back its own looted property, as some Chinese tycoons have done in recent years. Stanley Ho, for example, placed the winning bid of US$8.9 million for a bronze horse head (another Summer Palace zodiac bronze) and donated it to China in 2007.

But at the recent Christie's auction, the government discouraged anyone doing this, and also rejected a pre-auction offer to buy the bronzes. Buying back cultural artefacts is no different from paying a ransom, and that might further fuel the illegal trafficking of cultural property.

In the meantime, when governments and private collectors return artefacts to their home countries it is voluntary and usually due to bilateral negotiations.

In the case of China's bronze rabbit and rat heads, there is little likelihood that either will be homeward bound anytime soon.