The rat, the rabbit and Yves St Laurent

ysl-bronzesThis just in from Art Newspaper Editor, Georgina Adam.

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 Ricqlès 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 €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?

3 thoughts on “The rat, the rabbit and Yves St Laurent”

  1. Good summary of the circumstances of sale from Georgina. As to her final questions: Should Christie’s have agreed to sell the bronzes in the first place? Yes. YSL & Bergé had good title to them.

    Christie’s unease may have been understandable, but surely this wasn’t the reason for refusing photographs, which are all over the web along with plenty of astute and well-informed analysis, not least from the Telegraph’s China correspondent Richard Spencer (So who did loot those French/Italian animal heads?) and Hannah Lundqvist (Stolen Art and International Relations).

    Why didn’t Bergé offer them back to China? One suspects for the same reason he chose not to forego payment from French museums over pre-emptions.

    As for the issue of whether a court block on the sale would have effectively invited more claims on museums for repatriation of cultural property, the rat and the rabbit have merely highlighted what is already arguably the most divisive topic in cultural heritage. One has only to look at the furore (and helpful debate) created by James Cuno’s latest book ‘Who Owns Antiquity?’ for an indication of how the question of nationalism has become the hot topic in cultural politics.

    The most interesting question is whether the rat and the rabbit will have a positive impact on the art market by increasing the pressure on auction houses to be more vigilant about provenance (not that the rat and rabbit were problematic in that regard). China may have wanted them back, but nobody was questioning YSL & Bergé’s good title. Above all, if it makes auction houses a little less arrogant in the way they conduct their business, then this row could turn out to have been a good thing.

  2. Apologies, folks. It was actually Araminta Wordsworth’s National Post piece I meant to flag up in my comment on Georgina’s post rather than the item from Democracy Arsenal. See Araminta’s China conveniently forgets the provenance of looted bronze heads, which is one of the better summaries to date of the provenance dimension.

    (And would a charitable Salon geek mind closing my earlier html tag? I can’t seem to find a way in to edit it. Sorry about that. Mea culpa!)

  3. HTML sorted Tom.

    I think the bit that concerns me most about this issue is a current government trying to take some moral high ground to claim objects lost as part of a dispute with an earlier incarnation of their government some 150 years previous. The notion is contentious, bordering on spurious, to start with. History is history and, right or wrong, there are far too many complex conditions leading up to every event to try to sweep them away with the statement “we want our relics back”. If someone wants them, why should they not do what everyone else has to do: pay for them.

    Having said that, Cai Mingchao’s gambit was amusing and well calculated on his part. It has made him an instant national hero here in China. Of course there is always the question of whose idea it was in the first place…

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