Salvage plan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am

Much has been written about the two Qing dynasty bronze heads recently put up for auction in Paris but, at the end of the day, one thing is clear: they began as stolen goods and - even though they have changed hands and become the legal property of Pierre Berge, the partner of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent - they remain stolen property. As such, they should be returned to China.

The heads of the rat and the rabbit formed part of a collection of 12 animals that make up the Chinese zodiac. They were designed by Jesuits in the early 18th century and so were a European-Chinese creation, with great historical value.

Since January, the Chinese government had attempted to block the auction, calling the sculptures 'China's lost precious cultural treasures'. Officials whipped up public feelings, saying that the objects were 'looted by the joint Anglo-French forces' during the second opium war, and the auction 'offends the Chinese people and undermines their cultural rights'.

Actually, it is unclear whether the bronze heads were taken by invading soldiers, because they had been put into storage before the French and British arrived. However, the soldiers did go through the warehouses where the heads were presumably kept. And, even if they were stolen by local Chinese who joined in the looting, they remain stolen goods.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (Sach) wrote to Christie's and asked it not to proceed with the auction. When cajolery and threats did not work, Chinese lawyers went to court in France but, again, their efforts were stymied. Finally, after the auction, Beijing declared that there would be 'serious effects on Christie's development in China'. It imposed limits on what the auction house can bring in or take out of China.

The Chinese statements against the auction were a little shrill. They certainly succeeded in working some people up into a hysterical frenzy. When Cai Mingchao, an adviser to the China Fund for Recovering Cultural Artefacts Lost Overseas, held a press conference and identified himself as the successful mystery bidder with no intention of paying the almost US$40 million that he had promised, he was hailed as a national hero.

The next day's China Daily, the country's official English-language newspaper, ran a banner headline across its front page announcing 'Patriotic bidder thwarts relics' sale'. Underneath was a large photograph of Mr Cai. 'I believe that any Chinese person would stand up at that moment,' Mr Cai was quoted as saying. 'I am making an effort to fulfil my own responsibilities. It's just [that] the chance happened to come to me.'

But what Mr Cai actually achieved was to ruin his own reputation as an international buyer and tarnish China's image, showing it to be a country that does not operate according to international rules and regulations. Because of his act, auction houses are now requiring bidders to submit bank references. And he himself, a known antiques collector, will be viewed with suspicion at any future auctions he might attend.

Chinese officials have now distanced themselves from Mr Cai. Shan Jixiang, director of Sach, said the government had stayed out of the bidding. The official Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying that 'the [administration] had nothing to do with it'.

The China Fund for Recovering Cultural Artefacts Lost Overseas, a non-governmental body, supported Mr Cai's position, saying that the strict controls imposed by the government means that the 'two items he had bid for cannot be imported' into China, so naturally he 'will not pay for them'.

However, Mr Shan said the new order applies only to the cultural relics that Christie's submits to the Chinese cultural department for entry or exit checks and does not limit the return of looted Chinese cultural relics. This paves the way for a resolution: Mr Cai should pay the US$40 million that he promised, and the relics can then be returned to China, where they belong. Mr Cai can salvage his reputation and the image of his country.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator