AMONG THE TORRENT of words provoked by this week's auctions, the most important were those of the Beijing official who gave the order for his staff to purchase the Qianlong period porcelain vase for $20.9 million. 'The cultural treasures that started to leave our country from the time of the Opium War onwards are beginning to come back. It is a sign of China's increasing economic power,' said the president of the Beijing Cultural Relics Company, a subsidiary of the city's municipal government, who gave his name only as Mr Qin. Money, and not morality or international treaties, will decide the resting place for the art treasures. Since the Opium War of 1840, tens of thousands of pieces have left the country, stolen by soldiers and collectors or sold by poor farmers, rich businessmen who fell into bankruptcy and officials who wanted to supplement their income. Of the 12 animal heads from the Old Summer Palace, for example, two are in the hands of a private French collector, one is in Taiwan and four were sold to an overseas Chinese. During decades of invasion, wars, famine and revolution, safeguarding art was the last thing on the minds of most people. After the communists took power in 1949, they closed the country to foreigners, making it more difficult to remove works of art, but scarcely paid more attention. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Red Guards destroyed thousands of pieces of ancient and religious art, which they regarded as 'feudal' and evidence of 'imperial' and 'bourgeois' culture. It is only thanks to the prosperity of the last 10 years that China has had the money and the leisure to concentrate on this issue. Even so, the Central Government has been restrained in its handling of the auction. It is the National Bureau of Cultural Relics (NBCR) and the media that have made it a hot public issue. It was the NBCR that called on Christie's and Sotheby's to withdraw the four items from the auction, threatening action if they went ahead and criticising Hong Kong's inability to stop the sale. 'The laws of Hong Kong relating to protection of international relics are incomplete and it has not signed the relevant international treaties,' a bureau official said. 'Illegal businessmen and commercial organisations have taken advantage of this opportunity to turn Hong Kong into one of the world's biggest trading centres for illegal art.' The Beijing Youth Daily was loudest in its criticism of the sale, saying: 'From the point of view of morality and international law, these cultural treasures belong to China. Two patriotic companies had no alternative but to pay a high price to obtain the pieces. 'After World War II, the colonial system of the imperialist powers collapsed. But certain victorious powers did not change their value system and the main currents of the media in their countries continued to behave like cultural robbers,' an editorial stated. 'The old imperialist powers that created the unequal world order after World War II settled the accounts of the war crimes of the German and Japanese fascists but did not come to terms with the wrongs they had committed themselves. The behaviour of Sotheby's and Christie's is not unconnected with this.' But the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, was more subdued, and included a statement from a spokesman that the SAR was following the principle of 'one country, two systems', and international treaties and laws. For the Central Government, moral indignation over the auction has to be tempered with the realities of the world art market and Hong Kong's independence as a business and financial centre. To meet the demands of the NBCR would end the SAR's role as a centre for trading Chinese art. The issue of who has the right to own works of art is complex, entangled with politics, money and history. Museums in Europe and North America with Middle East and Oriental art, for example, argue that such pieces were acquired in line with laws in place at the time and sold willingly by a government or individuals. They further say the pieces have been preserved in the safety of a museum in London or Los Angeles when they might have been destroyed by wars, neglect or weather. Taiwan's president-elect Chen Shui-bian offered to return some of the thousands of art works taken when Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island in 1949. Not a word of this offer has appeared in the mainland media.