Christie’s is going to find itself wading through a lot more red tape in China following its sale of two Qing dynasty bronzes in the Paris auction of the late Yves St. Laurent’s art collection.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage will subject the auction house to close scrutiny whenever it seeks to bring in or take out items. This will likely make it tougher for Chinese to bring home artifacts they buy from Christie’s auctions, particularly in Hong Kong, where Christie’s and its rival Sotheby’s, holds biannual sales. Christie’s sold $130 million worth of Chinese antiquities there last year; it is its third most valuable market after New York and London.
China holds the two bronzes to be looted antiquities, and wants them returned. It went to court earlier this week to seek to force Christie’s to withdraw the pieces form the sales. Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokesman said earlier this month that the pieces had been “stolen and taken away by intruders” and “should be returned to China.” China’s bloggers have taken an equally vociferous line.
The two sculptures, representing the head of a rat and the head of a rabbit, were taken from the Summer Palace in Beijing when it was burned down by invading French and British forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The event remains one of the most powerful symbols of what China considers its humiliation when Western nations tried to force it open in the 19th century.
The two fountainheads have reopened the seemingly intractable question of how to deal with cultural artifacts that have been removed from their country of origin whether through theft or as a result of war. Despite several international conventions, the issue of whether they should be returned, and whether legal ownership rights that may have been established in the interim should be overridden remains a controversial and inconclusive one.
There are estimated to be more than 1 million relics outside the country, distributed among 200 museums in 47 countries. Ten times as many could be in private hands.
Christie’s has maintained that the Yves St. Laurent collection held legal title to the bronzes. It sold the pair for a combined 31.4 million euros ($40 million) to an unidentified telephone bidder at the Paris auction.
They may still find their way back to China. Five other of the 12 fountainheads have been bought by Chinese companies or businessmen and repatriated.