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Posted by: Frederik Balfour on February 19, 2009
The sale of art treasures amassed by French couturier Yves Saint Laurent by auction house Christie’s in Paris Feb. 23-25 has been deemed “the Sale of the Century”, comprising some extraordinary pieces by Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian. But while the art cognoscenti are aquiver with anticipation, the Chinese government is determined to spoil the party. The problem, you see, is that Saint Laurent’s fine eye also led him to the purchase of two 18th Century Qing Dynasty bronzes that were looted from the Imperial Summer Palace more than 150 years ago. Beijing has demanded that the pieces, bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat believed to be part of a collection inspired by the 12 signs of the zodiac, be withdrawn from the auction. Christie’s has refused to bow to the pressure.
“Auctioning cultural objects looted in war time not only offends the Chinese people and undermines their cultural rights, but also violates relevant international conventions,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, according to AFP. Unfortunately for China, international conventions regarding looted art don’t extend back 150 years. So here is a simple piece of advice to Beijing: attend the auction and purchase the treasures yourself. After all, China has shelled out huge sums in recent years to purchase stakes in foreign banks [Fortis and Morgan Stanley come to mind] only to lose billions on their purchases. The suggested price for the two bronzes is less than $13 million apiece, hardly enough to break the bank for a country with nearly $2 trillion in foreign reserves. What’s more, the government-linked National Treasures Fund has pulled out its checkbook in the past. Five other heads from the zodiac collection now on display in China were purchased at auction in recent years.
Speaking of recent history, let us not forget that China’s marauding Red Guards smashed thousands of precious works of art during the Cultural Revolution. This is understandably still a sensitive topic for the Chinese, so much so that last summer Beijing reneged on a promise to lend examples of Chinese Communist Revolutionary Art to the Asia Society in New York.
But let’s face it, the two bronzes on sale by Christie’s are pretty tiny in the grand scheme of things, and Beijing should perhaps keep its eye on the bigger prize. Departing Nationalists left mainland China for Taiwan with more than three thousand crates of art works, many of them on display in the magnificent National Palace Museum in Taipei. Beijing’s demand that these works be repatriated to China has long been a source of consternation for Taiwan, but improving ties across the Taiwan Strait are now extending even to the realm of art. On Valentine’s Day, the director of the National Palace Museum traveled to Beijing to discuss the possibility of lending part of its collection to China for display at the Palace Museum in Beijing. That’s a very encouraging first step at least. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for full repatriation. Greece is still waiting for the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, and London, New York and Paris each have a version of Cleopatra’s Needle that rightfully should be sweltering along the shores of the Nile in Egypt.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.