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Chinese legal alliance set up to return relics

LAWYERS of Chinese origin around the world have formed an alliance to help achieve the return of the country's lost cultural relics.

"Ten lawyers working in five countries have joined in the alliance," Liu Yang, spokesman and one of the founders of the group, said in a phone interview from Madrid, Spain, yesterday.

"They will work on future cases like the two bronze sculptures auctioned in Paris," Liu said.

Last Wednesday, Christie's auction house in the French capital attempted to sell two looted imperial bronzes, a move that drew protests from China.

Liu said the group plans to have a coordinator in "every foreign country where a large number of looted and lost Chinese cultural objects are held," including the nations that formed an alliance to invade China in 1900.

Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, Japan, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire participated in the invasion.

A total of 81 Chinese lawyers and three foreign colleagues formed an earlier group to stop the auction of the bronze rabbit and rat head sculptures that were stolen from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.

Their attempt to obtain a court injunction to stop the Paris auction failed.

That group has since disbanded, but the new alliance is now following the issue.

But legal experts said that forcing the return of cultural relics through legal proceedings will be difficult.

"So far, I haven't seen any international conventions or laws that could be applied to cultural relics such as the two bronzes," said Wang Yunxia, a professor of cultural relics law at Renmin University in Beijing.

Also yesterday, former Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing joined his voice to those criticizing Christie's, saying the auction "will not bring any glory to the homeland of the auctioneer."

"No matter which country one is from or what he does, he needs to consider not hurting his country's reputation," Li, spokesman for this year's annual session of China's legislature, told a press conference in Beijing.

Citing the ancient Chinese saying "a gentleman should seek fortune in a decent way," the spokesman said, "I don't think it's decent to auction looted cultural relics."

Last week, the two relics produced a winning bid of 31.49 million euros (US$39.6 million) at the sale of a collection owned by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner.

After the sale, China's cultural heritage authorities ordered strict checks on all exports and imports by Christie's in China.

On Monday, a Chinese antiques collector named Cai Mingchao identified himself as the person behind the winning bids.

But he told a press conference in Beijing that he would not pay for the bronzes, scuttling the sale.


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