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New Twist in Yves Saint Laurent Chinese Bronzes Controversy

Posted by: Frederik Balfour on February 23, 2009

I very carefully avoided mention the T-word during my previous blog about the two ancient Chinese bronzes belonging to the estate of Yves Saint Laurent that go on auction at Christie’s in Paris this week. Even so, my blog posting prompted plenty of vitriolic comments even without it. But it looks like Monsieur Saint Laurent’s former partner Pierre Bergé has brought the issue of Tibet out into the open, saying he would hand over the precious artworks to Beijing if it offered greater freedom for Tibet. Talk about adding insult to injury. Nothing sets Beijing off more than being told by outsiders [including this blogger] that it needs to improve its human rights record, and Bergé has risked offending China even further with his suggestion, according to the Financial Times.

However there has been a positive development, indicating the French are starting to recognize just how sensitive this issue has become, and according to the Financial Times, the French court on Monday will consider an emergency request to prevent the sale of the bronzes which were stolen from the Yuanmingyuan [old Summer Palace] in Beijing 150 years ago.

Many commenters on my blog pointed out that my suggestion China should bid for the artworks itself if it wishes to repatriate the bronzes was a bad idea, and over the weekend I came up with another suggestion that could be win-win for all parties concerned: The Chinese, the French, Christies’s and the estate of Yves Saint Laurent. Why not let the French government purchase the bronzes at auction, then make them as a present to Beijing? This would be an enormous diplomatic coup for the French, and mighthelp thaw the often-frosty relations with Beijing. President Nicholas Sarkozy infuriated China last December when he met with the Dalai Lama, and Chinese citizens demonstrated outside French retail chain Carrefour and organized boycotts of the stores last year when the Chinese Olympic torch relay in Paris was disrupted by pro-Tibetan protestors.

Reader Comments


February 23, 2009 9:10 AM

Pierre Bergé ,who does he think he is? Go pee on the floor and look into it..
Mr.Balfour, thank you for working out this win-win situation. Hope France can be smart enough to do so..


February 23, 2009 11:26 PM

Shame on the French people and its government! Shame! Shame! Shame! They should do what the German government has been doing with artwork plundered in war by Nazi Germany, i.e. return them to their rightful owners.,,2717468,00.html?maca=en-rss-en-top-1022-rdf


February 25, 2009 1:21 AM

150 years ago the colonial french ancestors looted and pillaged,150 years later their descendants extort and blackmail. What does France want to tell the world?


February 25, 2009 8:21 AM

France and Britain and others still holds vast amounts of looted Chinese art in its museums. The Guimet holds the loot brought by "explorer" Paul Pelliot and the British Museum the hoard brought by "explorer" Aurel Stein. While both France and Britain self-righteously claim they saved those artifacts, imagine for a moment if Chinese had looted Versailles and Windsor castle and were auctioning the loot in Beijing! Would you buy a personal item from the person who stole from you????

Yvonne Crowley

February 25, 2009 1:17 PM

Pierre Berge offered nothing but a Bandit's logic. A double whammy on Chinese people.


February 25, 2009 11:06 PM

What can you expect from the descendants of thieves?


February 26, 2009 8:59 AM

Today, the spokesman of Chinese foreign ministry answer the related question as following:
It is not all bad to let the robbed treasures outside of China. It can remind our Chinese of that part of bitter history and push us to worker harder and make our country stronger. It also can reminds some westerners that it does not mean they are civilized even they have suits on.


February 26, 2009 11:10 AM

British Museum and the Louvre have the highest concentration of stolen goods per square inch on this planet, people of the world should go there (as I did) and understand the evils of past colonialism and imperialism, the people of Asia, Africa and Middle East will not forget. Do yourself a favor, in this multi-polar globalized world, the West may not be in charge for too long, return what were looted. Western nations have deprived the people of the world to enjoy the fruit of labor of their ancestors. Human rights organizations, anyone? Jesus had the special hatred against self-righteous people!!!


March 3, 2009 4:39 AM

Will Pierre Berge be decent or his dirty deals be decent or civilized if he use the Tibetan issue as a shield? No one can deny these looted relics were stolen from China even they have been sold for hundreds of times. Once a thief always a thief. How shameful are the Christie's and the French.

Frederik Balfour

March 3, 2009 5:22 AM

I am just back from holiday, and very intrigued in the new turn this saga has taken. Cai Mingchao, the Chinese antique collector who successfully bid $40 million for the two vases, has stiffed Christie's. Here is a link from blogger DANWEI which gives a good discussion on this latest development.
This certainly won't help Beijing get the bronzes back, [and could hurt the standing of legitimate Chinese art dealers globally] though a legitimate buyer interested in becoming a modern Chinese hero could purchase them directly from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent and make a gift to China. By the way, it is interesting to note that the bronzes were actually believed to be made by an Italian Jesuit named Giuseppe Castiglione [which sounds Italian, not Chinese]. Check out this Bloomberg story for more details.


March 3, 2009 6:53 PM

you just don't get it, fred. if i work for Microsoft, the software's pattern belongs to Microsoft; If i work in a pharmaceutical company and I discover a drug, the pattern belong to the company. This Italian Jesuit priest helped Emperor QianLong to design Yuanmingyuan, everything inside belong to China and people of China. The point is: These two items were stolen.


March 3, 2009 8:40 PM

All the Chinese people should write to McGraw-Hill and complain about the bias and poor quality of BW concerning his report on China. BusinessWeek encourage the auction of looted good from China.
Write your complain to them.
Below is the office of Mcgraw Hill so you can mail or e-mail your complain.


March 3, 2009 9:19 PM

excuuuse me! i mean "patents".


July 3, 2009 3:01 AM

I find this ironic. The Chinese people are making a huge deal out of this, claiming their history is being stolen, their cultural identity damaged... And in the meantime they do not raise a finger against what their government is doing to Tibet.
Sorry to bring Tibet up, but two statues are nothing compared to the annihilation of an entire country and culture. In my opinion, there is a lot of hypocrisy there. I have a hard time taking China's complaints seriously, I hope you will understand.

I understand the frustration of the Chinese people. However I won't say I think these statues belong to China, because if you want to give people what was stolen from them centuries ago, you will soon have to redefine the maps of the world. I am not saying it does not belong to China either. I am only saying that it's hard for me to come up with an opinion on who is the rightful owner of the statues.

However, I still think this whole story showed how hypocritical China is. And I think getting the statues back in exchange for the freedom of Tibet was a just deal. It may not had been fair to China, but Justice would had been made. By refusing it, China just made a bad impression of itself to the rest of the world.

As for Sarkozy upsetting China by meeting the Dalai-Lama, I will say this: China acted very badly by trying to involve France in their oppression of Tibet. If Sarkozy wants to meet the Dalai-Lama, why would China have a moral right to complain about it? And if China really has an issue with this, I think France would be right to turn it's back on China.
Had Sarkozy met a dictator or a tyran, like when he met Khadaffi, I would had understood complaints from foreign nations. But last I checked Tibet was invaded unprovoked and Buddhists are peaceful. China, by complaining about this meeting, was trying to involve other countries in this unfair oppression against Tibetans and Buddhists. For this reason, I personally don't care much about making friends with China. That's like making friends with the school bully and helping him bully other people.

As for China being a powerful economy and useful to the world, it makes me laugh. Any country would have a powerful economy if it did not respect copyrights. Especially if it was one of the few ones that did not do it.
China doesn't spend a dime developing things. It lets other nations do this part of the work, and then it uses it without giving them compensation. Even their military technology is copied on foreign technology and is poor quality. In fact, only half of their navy is operational at the same time since the other half is used to provide replacement components.
Any country would also be powerful if the majority of it's citizens were unofficial slaves doing hard work for a bowl of rice a day. I wonder how long it's going to be until the Chinese lower class gets tired of building our wide screen plasma TVs they could not afford in 10 years of savings... I bet one day the lower class will fight their government. When that happens, the lower class will have my support.

I want to make it clear here: I am against the Chinese government and the people who support such things such as the class exploitation going on there, or the invasion of Tibet. I have no doubts that many Chinese people are not happy about their government and do not support the invasion of Tibet. These people have my support and I do not criticize them.

Anyway, China may be powerful economically but it has no merit. And I'm part of those who avoid buying stuff made in China as much as I can, so don't give me the "you're happy they make your cheap Ipod" speech please. I would gladly have Western Europe turn their back on China until it makes some changes. If the countries of Europe and America agreed to pay a little more money on their TVs for a year or two, China would have to bow before the demands of those countries. Because China's main source of power is the fact that the rest of the world buys from it.
Sorry, I'm European, so I would hardly sacrifice great ideas on the altar of materialism and wealth. I'm not saying I would live in a tree and grow my own vegetables, but I don't need an Ipod or a 24" computer screen that badly either.

Now let's talk about some hypocrisy, shall we? Two statues or the murder of a culture, what's worth crying over the most?
Ah yes, how nice it is to be rebellious by defending the bad guy. If only I still had the maturity of a teenager, so that I could enjoy doing this too.
What a shame that I am so idealistic that I have zero tolerance for dictatorship.

I should also mention something else: as said before, I have nothing against the lower classes of Chinese society who disapprove of their government's actions. But I am quite sure these people have better things to worry about than those statues. I would bet a million dollars that those who make such a big deal about these statues have reasons to be thankful to the Chinese government.


July 3, 2009 9:14 PM

A very apt parallel would be the Elgin Marbles currently in the possession of the British Museum and on display there.
Excavated by Lord Elgin in Greece which was under the Ottoman Empire at the time. There are two controversies here:
1) Lord Elgin claimed the Sultan of Turkey gave him permission to remove them from Greece to take back to Britain but no copy of the original firman is found in the Ottoman archives. 2) The Ottomans were Muslims and not respectful of cultures that came before them. Nevertheless Greece at that time as today is mostly populated by Greeks and their heritage was not for the Ottomans to give away.
Excuses that the British Museum use to keep the Marbles include:
1) The Marbles are in the best place for heritage preservation and for sharing them with the world. In answer to this, Greece has just created a world class museum near the Parthenon and can now take this role from the British Museum for the Marbles.
2) If they return these Marbles then other countries may ask for their treasures stolen from way back. My answer is when should theft in past ages be ignored just because they are sitting in Museums now.
3) Possession is 9/10ths of the law. While that one may be meant as a joke that is position taken by most museums, antique galleries, auction houses in the West.
Yves Saint Laurent and several of the commentators have muddied the issue of looted Chinese antiquities with the Tibetan issue. For that matter you could have linked those same antiquities with demands for reducing green house gases or if you want to take it to the extreme demand that the Chinese allow the US Fed. to run their banks. Ridiculous and it's not going to happen because the Chinese are not going to succumb to what basically amounts to cheap shots.
Stolen antiquities are not just a problem for the Chinese and Greeks. African and South American antiquities fill the museums of the west. The Italians have thousands of Classical and Renaissance items being smuggled out of their country each year. Even Britain has items stolen from their grand homes and churches and end up in the USA. People should see what is really the issue here. A very large problem has been trivialized by this designer of overpriced rags in order that he could cash in at the auction. And not only that he had the audacity to sound smug as well.

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