Remy de la Mauviniere/AP
A Chinese bronze rabbit head, right, and bronze rat head, which are part of a collection
owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent.

China Uses Auction to Draw Attention to Missing Cultural Relics

March 03, 2009 11:15 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
China’s relics recovery fund placed a fake bid on two sculptures during a Christie's auction, exemplifying the strong attachment nations have to their pasts.

China Determined to Regain Zodiac Statues

Cai Mingchao, an advisor to China’s nonprofit National Treasures Fund, was the winning bidder at a recent Christie’s auction that included items from the estate of late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. But Mingchao said he will not make good on his $40 million bid and wants the two bronze heads, a rabbit and a rat, to be returned to China. The Chinese government considers the heads stolen property and “symbolic of China’s past colonial humiliation,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Associated Press reports that the two “fountainheads … disappeared from the former summer palace on the outskirts of Beijing in 1860, when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War.”

In late February, APACE, a group that works “to protect Chinese art on the world market,” filed an official request to a French judge asking that he not auction the relics, reports AP. Bernard Gomez, president of APACE, told sources that although Saint Laurent bought the heads legally, they ought to be held in a museum.

In addition, a coalition of 81 Chinese lawyers wrote a letter to Christie’s asking the auction house not to sell the heads, according to Xinhua News Agency.

In recent months, Iraq and Italy have also made impassioned efforts to regain lost relics.

In late February, The Guardian reported that Iraq’s efforts to track down and bring home thousands of artifacts looted from the National Museum had started to pay off. Nearly 5,500 items were recovered due to efforts across six continents, from South America to North Africa.

Italy has also taken steps to ensure recovery of more artifacts, particularly by stopping illegal archaeological digs. Italian authorities were aware of 238 illegal archaeological digs spread over the Italian peninsula in 2008, 15 percent more than were discovered in 2007. As a result, Italy recouped 183 million euros ($243 million) worth of artwork, as opposed to 82 million euros the year before.

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Background: 12 zodiac statues and Summer Palace

The 12 zodiac statues were once part of a fountain, “or clepsydra, a type of clock that uses water to tell time,” according to the BBC. Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione is believed to have designed the statues in the 18th century.

A Time magazine blog entry written in October 2008 reported that the rat and rabbit head statues had turned up in “Saint Laurent's extensive art collection,” and listed the whereabouts of all 12 zodiac statues.

Summer Palace, the imperial garden in Beijing, is where the two zodiac statues first disappeared during the Opium War. The palace, which was destroyed and then rebuilt in 1886, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for being “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.”

Related Topic: Fake bids with purpose

Daily Kos describes several fake bids, including some that were used to disrupt auctions “for political reasons” or to profit off of a tragic event. Daily Kos suggests ways in which such “civil disobedience” could be used for a purpose: “Animal rights activists could easily disrupt livestock auctions. Housing rights and open space advocates could disrupt local, state, and federal auctions of public property.”

Reference: Christie’s


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