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‘Stolen’ Chinese Art Causes Furor

By Michelle Dennehy, Auction Watch, 2 May 2000, 3 p.m. PT

Sales of Chinese art allegedly looted from an Imperial Palace in 1860 are stirring controversy at Sotheby's and Christie's Hong Kong offices.

According to Christie's Web site, the artworks were dispersed from the Summer Palace of Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) after its sack by Anglo-French troops in 1860. Two of the works causing the most uproar are bronze fountainheads of a monkey and an ox, representing part of the 12 animals of the zodiac. Only seven of these fountainheads are known to exist today.

The two heads sold far exceeded their estimates of $500,000 to $580,000, with the monkey head going for $1,064,050 and the ox for $1,006,850, both to a buyer in Beijing on Monday. According to a New York Times story about the auction, China's Cultural Relics Bureau said it would be insulting and deeply painful to the Chinese people to have these thing sold before their eyes. Indeed, protests broke out in the hotel where the auction was staged, with demonstrators shouting nationalist slogans and one protester yelling, Return our national treasures immediately through a bullhorn.

But Christie's said these two heads were previously sold at auction—the monkey in 1987 in New York, the ox in London in 1989. These pieces in this sale had been in collections outside China for a long time and have previously been sold at auction, said company spokesperson Andree Corroon.

Furthermore, she said the auction house understands that its client owns titles to these works. Christie's acts only as an agent for international clients. When we undertake to sell property we do so with the understanding that owners have good title under international laws. We always support the claims of rightful owners through due legal process, she said.

A Sequel to the Opium Wars According to a Reuters story, these items come from a harsh time in China's history. The defeat by Anglo-French troops in 1860 led to the country's being forced to pay reparations to its invaders, handing over the Kowloon peninsula to Britain, part of today's Hong Kong. These reparations represent one of the disgraceful unequal treaties imposed from London as it tried to open China's markets, leading to Britain's colonization of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong became a special administrative region (SAR) of China in 1997. Apparently this is the first auction of controversial items since its new status. But Christie's spokesperson Corroon said Hong Kong has become a center in the international art market by building a high reputation for observing the rule of law. Many of Hong Kong's neighboring countries envy its unique commercial environment, she added.

Today in Hong Kong, Sotheby's auctioned controversial works of its own—a Qianlong Reticulated famille rose hexagonal vase that sold for $2,689,306, and a bronze tiger's head that fetched $1,983,106. A Sotheby's statement about the auction reads that it has generated strong and diverse feelings within the community. In offering these items, Sotheby's has fully observed and complied with all local laws and international treaties. The statement added that the auction house was very pleased that the lots were purchased by Mainland Chinese.

According to Reuters, the buyer at the Sotheby's auction said he represented the Beijing Cultural Relics Company, and acted with the support of that city's municipal government. Ironically, television news reports said the buyer was China Poly Group, a former commercial arm of China's People's Liberation Army, with close ties to the family of China's former leader Deng Xiaoping.