A tale of two bronzes


Imagine this: Your house was broken into and looted. The next thing you know, your missing diamond necklace, an heirloom, has been spotted at a local jewellery store. Of course you want it back. Pay us first, says the store.

Chinese Bronze Statue (Rat)Chinese Bronze Statue (Rabbit)

Bronzes from the Zodiac Fountain of Beijing's Summer Palace, sold by Christie's in Paris from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé (

No doubt you’d be fuming (and dashing to the police). It’s the same reason why the Chinese are fuming. Two of the bronze sculptures stolen from Beijing more than a century ago were put on auction late last month in Paris – and the only way to recover them, it seemed, was to buy them back.

China is adamant about not doing so. “We oppose any auction of these cultural relics and demand the return of them,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said. “The essence of the issue is that these cultural relics, which were looted and taken abroad, are originally owned by China.”

As it turned out, a Chinese art collector and auctioneer by the name of Cai Mingchao decided to take matters into his own hands, after efforts by the Chinese government to block the sale failed. (To punish it for having gone ahead with the sale, Beijing has ordered new limits on what Christie’s could take in or out of China.) Cai successfully bid for the two sculptures, for a total sum of €31.5 million, but later announced he would not pay, in a move apparently to sabotage the auction. Christie’s has given him a month to pay up.

The “cultural relics” at stake are two bronzes, a rat’s head and a rabbit’s head, from the Qing dynasty. They were originally part of a zodiac water clock in the old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, which was looted and burned down by French and English troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The Chinese view the destruction of the palace as the most powerful symbol of a historical humiliation the country suffered under the West, and the recovery of the bronzes is an emotional issue for them.

Legally though, China’s case is weak. The theft of the bronze heads is too long ago to be affected by the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, an international agreement that facilitates the restitution and return of stolen cultural relics. Besides, France never ratified the convention.

With the support of the Chinese government, a group of lawyers representing the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe, a Paris-based non-profit organisation, had tried to stop the auction. However, their case was thrown out after a Paris court ruled the association had no direct links to the bronze sculptures.

China could have used diplomatic channels, were it not for already frosty ties between Beijing and the Elysée. The lawyers did appeal to the French government but to no avail, while it’s not clear if the Chinese authorities themselves have done so. Sino-French relations soured after French President Nicholas Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama in December and his remarks on the Tibet issue. The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, admitted he avoided France on his recent trip to Europe, which took him to five EU member states. No doubt the controversy over the bronzes, which has fanned anti-French sentiment in China, will put the relationship under further strain

Meanwhile, few in the Western media were sympathetic to the Chinese cause. One columnist criticised China’s protests as “chauvinist clamour”. He and others, who included writers of Time and the UK Telegraph, went on to proffer “information” their ignorant readers, swamped by Chinese nationalistic propaganda, might not have known.

The sculptures, they say, were in fact not Chinese, but designed by French and Italian Jesuits. There is “no evidence” the bronze heads were looted by the invaders. In fact, they were probably stolen by Chinese thieves who joined in the plundering as well. And were it not for the West who kept the bronzes in safe hands, the artefacts would have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. After all, hasn’t China been and still is bulldozing historical quarters in the name of modernisation?

In a more astute piece, though, the Financial Times correctly observed: “For all its outward confidence, modern China has a brittle alter ego that occasionally uses…events to play the victim. The disrupted Olympic torch relay last year and the 1999 bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy touched that nerve…[W]ith unemployment soaring and unrest in Tibet beginning to bubble up again, a bout of nationalist pique is not unwelcome in Beijing.”

Yes, of course, there’s Tibet. To many in the West, China has no right to demand for the return of the bronze heads as long as it continues to occupy and “loot” Tibet.

“All they have to do is to declare they are going to apply human rights, give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory,” Pierre Bergé, the man who put the bronzes on the block, told Reuters.

“If they do that, I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing.”

Proceeds from the auction – the largest single-owner sale in history, which brought in about €342 million, excluding the bronze heads – will go to a fund for scientific research and the fight against AIDS.

It’s a worthy cause, but it does not justify the selling of stolen goods. Nor does it excuse theft. “One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace,” wrote Victor Hugo. “The one pillaged, the other burned. Victory is a thief... The French empire has pocketed half of this victory, and today with a kind of proprietorial naivety it displays the splendid bric-a-brac of the Summer Palace. I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.”


Victor Hugo’s, "The Sack of the Summer Palace"


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First Published: 
March 2009


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caddy leeA former financial journalist, Caddy Lee read English at Oxford and is currently preparing for postgraduate studies in Chinese Literature. She lives in France.


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