The saga of the Chinese bronzes hammered down at auction during the Yves St Laurent sale and then not paid for, as a political gesture, raises many thorny questions.
Briefly, (and for those of you who were on Mars this week), the two Qianlong bronze heads, of a rat and a rabbit, were looted from the Yuanming Yuan Summer Palace in Beijing by Franco-British forces in 1860 during the Opium Wars. They were two of 12 heads which adorned a Zodiac fountain, five of which have never resurfaced.
The heads were offered for sale by Pierre Bergé, the late Yves St Laurent’s former lover and business partner, in Christie’s block-busting sale of their collection last week in Paris. The Chinese have been calling for the return of the heads, and a French association (AFACT) with links to China attempted to block the sale by bringing an emergency injunction in a French court shortly before the sale started. The demand was thrown out in no uncertain terms by the French “procureur” (prosecutor) for a number of reasons, some technical and others more fundamental. I was in court and subsequently at the sale when the bronzes were sold.
China was not able, legally, to claim the bronzes under international law, and does not want simply to buy them back – its position being that they were looted and should be returned. At no point did AFACT claim that Bergé was not the legal owner of the heads, and prior to the sale Bergé stated that he would be prepared to return the heads “when China respects human rights and frees Tibet”. This did nothing to improve Sino-French relations, which hit a new low after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama last December in Poland.
At the sale, the two heads were “sold” to a bidder on the telephone, underbid by two other telephones for the first, and one for the second. The price was £20.4m each, including premium, and contrary to usual practice no paddle number was announced – “the buyer wanted absolute discretion,” auctioneer François de RicqlÃ¨s said afterwards.
On Monday this week a Chinese collector and auction house general manager, Cai Mingchao, announced that he was the buyer and that he was refusing to pay, as a patriotic gesture.
So here are some of the questions this saga raises.
Should Christie’s have agreed to sell the bronzes in the first place? The auction house refused to release images of the heads both before and after the auction, which in my book translates as a feeling of unease about them, even if Bergé’s ownership was secure. No doubt competition with Sotheby’s for the sale was behind this decision…
Why didn’t Bergé, having garnered well over â‚¬300m before the bronzes were sold, find a way of offering them back to China? Should he have mixed politics into art this way? Would there have been any way of doing this without setting a dangerous precedent? (And while on the subject of money, I personally find mean-spirited that he did not forgo payment from French museums for the items they pre-empted).
Christie’s lawyer argued that if the court blocked the sale, it would mean that museum collections around the world could be threatened as countries used the judgement to reclaim works originally theirs. Ultimately, is culture under the same threat of protectionism as trade?