China Unable to Stop Auction of Looted Relics

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

BEIJING, Feb. 24 -- Rebuffed by a French court, China was not giving up Tuesday on efforts to block the auction of two historic bronze sculptures that evoke memories of one of China's greatest humiliations at the hands of foreign powers.

The bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, part of a once-magnificent fountain of Chinese zodiac animals in Beijing's Summer Palace, were looted by pillaging French and British troops in 1860, during the Second Opium War. Five of the 12 heads have been recovered and are now displayed in a Beijing museum. But after a cultural group led by a Chinese lawyer who has previously represented Chinese state interests appealed to stop the auction, a Paris court rejected the case and fined the plaintiffs for holding up the sale, which started Monday.

On Tuesday, the Chinese government officially weighed in. "The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has formally informed the auctioneer of our strong opposition to the auction and clearly demanded its cancellation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said during a news conference.

The auction, from the estate of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, continued Tuesday and has already garnered headlines for the attention it has generated amid an art market downturn. The bronzes are estimated to be worth nearly $13 million.

Ma also rejected an offer by Saint Laurent's former business manager and companion to return the sculptures in exchange for Chinese human rights guarantees and permission for the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to return to Tibet. "Using the pretext of human rights to infringe on the Chinese people's fundamental cultural rights is just ridiculous," Ma said.

Chinese-French relations are tense after Beijing cancelled an economic summit last year because French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided to meet the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing regards as a dangerous separatist.

Ma praised the recent visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for producing "positive results." Clinton over the weekend largely ignored the pleas of human rights activists and said human rights issues should not be allowed to interfere with U.S.-China cooperation on the economy and climate change.

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