French judge asked to stop sale of Chinese relics

By Angela Charlton
Associated Press Writer / February 20, 2009
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PARIS—A Chinese-backed group is asking a Paris judge to suspend the sale of bronze relics looted in the 19th century and now part of a major auction of the estate of late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

The judge will rule Monday morning on the request -- just hours before the auction at Christie's in Paris begins, lawyer Romuald Sayag said Friday.

The last-minute legal effort threatens to further strain relations between China and France already marred by tensions over Tibet. It was also casting a shadow over what some are dubbing the auction of the century.

The auction will showcase an exceptional private collection of more than 700 works by such artists as Picasso assembled by Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge over decades. The collection has been exhibited for public viewing in New York and London, and the sale will run three days, finishing Wednesday.

The disputed items are two fountainheads, sculptures of a rat head and rabbit that 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, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

Sayag submitted the request to halt the sale of the bronzes on behalf of APACE, a group mandated by the Chinese government to protect Chinese art on the world market.

The group is not seeking to stop the full Saint Laurent auction, just the sale of the relics. APACE president Bernard Gomez said Saint Laurent legally bought the bronzes, but says they should now be put in a museum. The designer died last year.

"What we want is for the pieces ... not to go into the private domain, to a collector who will lock them up in his house," Gomez said. The bronzes are "a national, and international heritage."

The Chinese government asked APACE to try to suspend the sale while it seeks other solutions, Gomez said.

"China does not want to buy them. China wants restitution," Gomez said. If they could be returned to the French government, he said, "That would improve relations between China and France."

The past year has been a rough one for France-China ties. Chinese protesters called for a boycott of French goods after French protesters disrupted the passage of the Olympic torch through Paris in April.

China canceled a December summit with the European Union to protest talks between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese accuse of supporting Tibetan separatism.

Berge has been quoted in news reports as saying that if the Chinese government wants the pieces back, it has only to bid for them.

In an interview with i-Tele news channel aired Friday, Berge firmly stated, "I do not have the intention of giving these heads to the Chinese government. Rather, I would recommend that the Chinese, instead of getting worked up over the heads, worry about human rights."

The two relics date back to the early Qing Dynasty, established by invading Manchu tribesmen in 1644. The Christie's catalog says the "very rare and important" pieces were made for the Zodiac fountain of the summer Imperial Palace.

The rat head sculpture is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) tall and 16 inches (40 centimeters) long, while the rabbit is about 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall and 14 inches (35 centimeters) long.

The two bronzes are expected to sell for up to euro10 million ($13 million) each, according to news reports.

Alexandra Kindermann, a Christie's spokeswoman based in London, said the auction house would not be making any comment on the French legal proceedings. She said the issue would be addressed during a press preview of the lots on Saturday.

Christie's said in a statement earlier this month that while it "respects the cultural context around the sale of the fountainheads, we respectfully believe the auction will proceed."


Associated Press writers Jenny Barchfield and Verena von Derschau contributed to this report.

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