Monday, March 02, 2009

Buyer won't pay for China's looted relics

The old Summer Palace which was plundered in 1860

A man who won the bid for two controversial bronze animal heads at a Paris auction has refused to pay as an act of “patriotism”. The Chinese man won the bid for the two animal heads, a Rat and Rabbit, earlier this week. But in show of loyalty to his country of origin, Cai Mingchao said he would not pay the €30 million bid for the two antiques.
Plundered antiquities

The objects were stolen by British and French troops from the imperial Summer Palace in October 1860, towards the end of the Second Opium War. Originally a set of 12 heads representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac they once adorned a fountain built for the Emperor Qianglong. The palace, Yuanmingyuan, was burned down and the bronze heads disappeared. To date 5 heads have been returned to China. The Ox, Tiger and Monkey were returned in 2000 and the Pig and Horse were repatriated to the homeland in 2003 and 2007 respectively. The whereabouts of the other five, a Dragon, Snake, Sheep, Rooster and Dog, remains unknown and some believe they may have been destroyed. It has also been suggested the missing heads may be secretly stored at the Louvre and British Museum [BBC / CNN / Xinhua].

The French courts allowed the sale to go ahead despite strong protestations from China [BBC]. The incident has further soured relations between China and France. Even Victor Hugo, the French novelist, could see the issue blowing up in years to come as he referred to the plundering of Beijing in his writings. "Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain," Hugo wrote in his 1861 book Expédition de Chine.

“I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was simply fulfilling my responsibilities. What I really want to stress is that this money cannot be paid” Cai told reporters. Cai Mingchao is a collection advisor of National Treasure Funds of China (NTFC) a body set up to repatriate stolen Chinese artefacts. He and others have helped repatriate dozens of other artefacts. But this particular sale has struck a nerve in China and for its people.

China is not alone in seeking the return of stolen antiquities. Greece continues to demand the return treasures stolen by archaeologists including the infamous Elgin Marbles currently on display in the British Museum. Thomas Bruce the 7th Earl of Elgin is well known for his plundering not only the Elgin marbles but many other Greek antiquities. Less well known is that his son, James Bruce the 8th Earl of Elgin was responsible for ordering the destruction of the Summer Palace. Another sorry chapter of Britain’s colonial past that continues to haunt her.

As for Christies, the auction house has yet to make any statement on the matter. However it looks certain Mr Cai will not be bidding for other Chinese relics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So, what was this fool Cai's purpose then? Looking for his 15 minutes? So many millionaires now in China, and NONE step up????