The family of writer Zhou Zuoren, who died in 1967, has demanded the cancellation of a weekend auction of a manuscript they say was looted from their home by Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution.
Zhou's grandson Zhou Jiyi said yesterday that his lawyers had also sent a letter to China Guardian Auctions asking it to reveal the client's name and documentation proving legal ownership of the manuscript.
He also said he would consider further action if the auction house failed to comply.
He said he recognised the manuscript instantly after a newspaper report on April 27 about the planned auction that led him to the auction house's website, where a photo of the manuscript was uploaded. It set the asking price for tomorrow's auction at between 650,000 and 700,000 yuan (HK$799,000 and HK$860,000).
'I've demanded the auction house return the manuscript because it's an item I couldn't be more familiar with,' he said. 'I'm so happy that we can still see it after more than 40 years, though I'd never expected it to surface this way.'
The lawyer's letter to the auction house says the Zhou family is the indisputable owner of the manuscript under mainland law, including the 2007 Property Law, and any dealings in the item without the family's consent would be subject to compensation and could even constitute a crime.
Zhou Zuoren, born in January 1885, was the older brother of writer Zhou Shuren, better known by the pen name Lu Xun.
The manuscript was written for a speech on the development of the Japanese novel that he delivered at Peking University in April in 1918.
The auction house said yesterday that the family had been unable to provide it with 'a list of looted items' or a document proving its ownership, both requested by its lawyers. 'Based on that, we believe that what they've said is not enough for us to withdraw the item from auction,' it said.
Zhou Jiyi said he had acted because the 2004 Regulation on Auctions prohibits the sale of items if their ownership was in dispute.
The reappearance of the manuscript brought back painful memories for the 63-year-old, who remembers how his family was forced into the yard while Red Guards loyal to Mao Zedong raided their Beijing home in August 1966 in a purge targeting intellectuals and capitalists.
He said they would never know for sure how many items were taken because the family was never given a list. Only a few of the looted items were returned after the Cultural Revolution, but most of his grandfather's collection, including 100 seals and a treasured ancient porcelain vases were unaccounted for, he said.
Tsinghua University sociologist Li Dun said it was absurd to ask the family to provide a list and the ownership of the manuscript was obvious, given the Cultural Revolution context. He said the legal battle would involve uncertainty because there were few legal precedents and a lack of legal enforcement on looted items.