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China slams Saint Laurent auction

CHINA yesterday criticized the sale of two bronze sculptures that were looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace, saying the Paris auction house handling the bidding has broken international conventions and seriously hurt the country's "cultural rights, interests and national sentiment."

The comments, by Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu, came at a regular press conference in answer to questions about the sale of articles that were part of a collection owned by the late fashion king Yves Saint Laurent and his partner.

"It is the international community's consensus as well as the basic cultural rights and interests of the people of the original owning country to protect cultural relics and return them to the original owning countries," Ma said.

He said the Chinese government attaches great importance to the retrieval of looted cultural items. China has joined international conventions, signed agreements with many countries and participated in international cooperation in this regard, the spokesman said.

"The Western powers have plundered many Chinese cultural relics in wars, including many precious items robbed from the Old Summer Palace. All of these should be returned to China," Ma said.

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage demanded that Christie's, the auction house handling the sale, remove the items from bidding.

The administration said it would not buy the rabbit and mouse head sculptures because that would mean China acknowledges they had been taken legally.

As for reports that Pierre Berge, the present owner of the bronzes, said he would return the sculptures if China gives liberty to the Tibetan people and welcomes the Dalai Lama, the spokesman said it is absurd to infringe on the Chinese people's "fundamental cultural rights under the banner of human rights."

A Paris court refused to halt the sale early yesterday.

The court found the petitioner - the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe - was not eligible to be an applicant for preservation of the bronzes.

The court also ordered the association to pay the two defendants - Christie's and Pierre Berg and Associates - 1,000 euros (US$1,278) each as compensation. A team of more than 80 Chinese lawyers now plans to put pressure on potential buyers or file a suit against the buyer.

The two heads were among 12 that formed a zodiac-themed water clock at the imperial Old Summer Palace, also known as Yuanmingyuan Garden, in Beijing.

All the bronzes were stolen when the imperial garden was sacked by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.

The clock's pig, monkey, ox, tiger and horse heads have been returned to China, but the locations of the remaining five are unknown.

The rabbit and mouse heads are expected to fetch an initial bid between 8 million and 10 million euros at today's auction of the Saint Laurent and Berge collection.

After Saint Laurent's death in June, Berge decided to sell the collection, which is estimated to be worth up to US$300 million, and donate the proceeds to medical research.

The other lots up for bid include sculptures from ancient Egypt and Rome, ivory crucifixes and silver German beer steins.


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