Thursday, February 26, 2009

Article - Beijing calls for halt to sale of relics

Feb 25, 2009 (The Straits Times)
The bronze rabbit and rat heads were looted by foreign troops from Beijing's Summer Palace almost 150 years ago. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING: - A French court's refusal to halt the auction of two Chinese imperial bronzes yesterday provoked an outpouring of nationalist sentiment among netizens here as the government made a formal call for the scrapping of the sale.

Despite the court's ruling, a group of more than 80 Chinese lawyers pledged to take further measures to block the auction of the Qing dynasty sculptures which are scheduled to be sold in Paris today.

'The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has formally informed the auctioneer of our strong opposition to the auction, and clearly demanded its cancellation,' Mr Ma Zhaoxu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a regular press briefing yesterday.

To stop auction house Christie's from putting the two relics under the hammer, the lawyers had filed an application with a Paris court last Thursday under the name of an association representing Chinese cultural interests.

The bronze rabbit and rat heads, looted by foreign troops from Beijing's imperial Summer Palace almost 150 years ago, were part of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's private estate which is being sold off by his long-time partner Pierre Berge.

The lawyers argued their case before the court on Monday morning in Paris, just hours before the start of the three-day auction. Christie's brought in a seven-member legal team to counter the motion, according to Chinese state media.

In the evening, the judge ruled that the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe was not entitled to file the injunction as it did not have direct links to the two sculptures, said the official Xinhua news agency. The association was ordered to pay &yen1,000 (S$1,950) in fines each to the auction house and to Mr Berge's firm.

The two relics are expected to fetch up to US$13 million (S$20 million) each.

The judgment yesterday enraged Chinese netizens and prompted stern rebukes in the Chinese media, complicating high-level efforts to mend relations between China and France which have soured in the past year over Tibet.

Mr Berge raised hackles in China when he told French radio last week that he would give them back to China if Beijing would 'observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama'.

Mr Ma of China's Foreign Ministry yesterday dismissed Mr Berge's offer to exchange the sculptures for human rights concessions as 'absurd'.

Chinese Internet users threatened to boycott French goods, demanded the breaking-off of diplomatic ties between China and France, and urged Chinese people who have spent millions buying back pilfered cultural relics not to 'put money into the hands of the French' by bidding for the sculptures.

Wrote one incensed blogger: 'No matter where the sculptures are, they belong to China! Still want to auction them? This proves that the French, starting with their ancestors, are all robbers!'

Speaking to Chinese media after the outcome, Mr Liu Yang, head of the group of lawyers, said: 'Even though we failed, we feel proud in defeat, because in a big court in Paris, the unyielding voices of Chinese people have been heard.'

'Although the result is unfair, in future when they are dealing with similar cases, they will be more prudent, they will not ignore the feelings of Chinese people and insist on doing things their own way,' he added.

The group acknowledges that the late designer acquired the bronzes legally, but insists they should be returned to China or displayed in a museum.

The lawyers said despite the court's decision, they would continue to 'make every effort' to halt the auction at Christie's, including possibly taking legal action against whoever buys the pieces, Xinhua reported.

Legal experts in China, however, have their doubts about the lawsuit.

'There is little chance of them winning the lawsuit,' Professor Wang Yunxia, a cultural relics law expert at Beijing's Renmin University, told Xinhua.

'So far, I haven't seen any international conventions or laws that could be applied to the relics dating back that far (to the Qing Dynasty),' she said.

How does the above news affect what you know or understand about the way some Chinese see themselves, or about the Chinese identity?

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