Lost but not forgotten

By Lu Qianwen Source:Global Times Published: 2012-11-8 17:20:04


The bronze zodiac pig head was on display in Tianjin in 2011 after it returned to China in 2003 from an American collector. Photo: CFP
The bronze zodiac pig head was on display in Tianjin in 2011 after it returned to China in 2003 from an American collector. Photo: CFP

Repatriating cultural relics means long and difficult road

On November 3, English auction house Bonhams issued a public statement saying it decided to call off its auction (originally set for Nov 8) of two cultural relics that belonged to Yuanmingyuan, the Chinese imperial garden built in 1707 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

This sets a precedent for foreign auction houses canceling their auction of Chinese cultural relics.

Countries with long histories like Egypt and China take pride in their rich cultural heritage, but must accept the sad and painful fact that many of their rare cultural relics, symbols of a once splendid, ancient civilization, now do not actually belong to them.

Some experts argue ancient relics should be presented in their country of origin. "Cultural relics reflect history, and only when they are integrated with the country that owns them can they embody historic and educational significance," said Zhao Yu, a councilman at the Cultural Relic Academy of China.

"China has lost millions of first and second-level cultural relics to other countries," said Zhao.

Withdrawn from auction

The birth certificate of those two pieces on Bonhams' website clearly stated they were "taken out" by a British soldier in 1860, the year of the savage looting and burning of Yuanmingyuan by the coalition army of Britain and France.

In its statement, Bonhams explained that the move is meant to avoid stimulating Chinese people's indignation. The move came in response to public outcry over the proposed auction as seen in Chinese media. And this is not the first time Chinese people have expressed their strong objections to the auctioning of Yuanmingyuan cultural relics by foreign owned houses.

In 2000, Sotheby's in Hong Kong (HK) and Christie's in HK auctioned three bronze heads of Chinese zodiac animals. The 12 symbolic creatures were sculpted in the reign of Emperor Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty.

"The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) issued a letter requesting that they stop the auction, but (their requests) were ignored," said Zhao. "The same situation happened in 2009 when Christie's in Paris auctioned another Chinese zodiac animal head," he said.

After two failed requests, the Chinese government responded by closing the doors of the auction previews at both auction houses in the mainland. Foreign auction houses are not allowed to hold auctions alone in the mainland, but now Sotheby's and Christie's suffer the further restriction of being forbidden to preview items in the region.

Historic loss

"It should be that we can adore and pay tribute to the precious culture of our own country, but now we have to go so far just to have a look at them," said Niu Xianfeng, vice director-general of Chinese overseas cultural relics recovery fund.

Chinese cultural relics lost overseas can generally be classified into two types: those that were looted by foreign invaders since the mid 19th century, and those that were stolen by locals and later smuggled out of the country.

"The cultural relics looted from Yuanmingyuan are even richer in variety compared to the collection of the Forbidden City (which houses more than 1.8 million pieces)," said Zhao.

For that period of history, according to Zhao, the burning in Yuanmingyuan lasted more than one month: "They even held auctions there for three days and then distributed the money from the auctions to the soldiers."

"When they returned to their countries, on one hand they auctioned those Chinese cultural relics, and meanwhile put some of them into their own palaces like the Louvre Museum and the British Museum," he added.

Multiple obstacles

There are three main ways for lost relics to be returned to their homeland; government recourse, governmental or private purchase, and through donating or exchanging. Among these options, selling an item back to its homeland is the most attractive to collectors, but it is the most expensive method for the country of origin.

During the Sotheby's and Christie's auction in 2000 and 2009, it was Chinese company China Poly Group Corporation finally bought the three bronze animal heads, spending HKD 35.4 million ($4.57 million), three times their pre-sale estimates.

Legal recourse is the most difficult way of getting relics back since the international convention on illegal export of cultural relics is neither strictly formulated, nor legally binding in many countries.

In 1995, the Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects was approved in Rome, however, it has very limited influence due to two stipulations. One is the Convention can only be applied to those cases that occurred after its birth, which is the year 1995. The other is that the Convention is only workable involving disputes between two contracting parties. Thus, a major obstacle in applying the Convention to many Chinese relics is that Britain, a major destination of cultural relics from other countries, is not a contracting party.

"The biggest obstacle facing government recourse is that foreign collectors don't admit their objects belong to China and hence deny (any obligation) to give them back," said Zhao.

"Buying back cultural objects that belong to us is undesirable," said Xie Chensheng, a council of Yuanmingyuan Society of China, "because this would make their illegal behavior legal. We should only resort to legal ways under the framework of international conventions," he suggested.

However, the ways of legal recourse and buying back items at high prices can be very labor intensive, and even Herculean efforts face the risk of failure. Compared to them, negotiation and consultation is the optimal solution.

The withdrawal of the two Chinese auction pieces by Bonhams actually provided a good opportunity for the Chinese government to establish a method of "consulting back" the cultural relics.

"What the government should do now is contact the collectors of those two pieces and express our wishes for them to be returned to (China)," said Zhao. "Of course, if they agree to this process, we should not only reward them with public praise, but also give them certain economic compensation since maintenance of ancient relics also has its cost," he added.


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