As the New York Times reported on 17 February, the Chinese government issued a protest about the planned auction by Christie’s in Paris of two bronzes (a rabbit and a rat head) coming from the Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Peking, which was ransacked by British and French soldiers in a punitive expedition following the Second Opium War in 1860 and is now a key official site for remembering the “hundred years of humiliation.” The government said that as the objects were war booty, international conventions require that they be restored to China. Christie’s disputed this and said the auction would go ahead. Pierre Berge, the co-owner of the collection, said that he would give the heads back to China “if Beijing ‘would observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama,” reported Steven Erlanger in the NYT (“China condemns auction of bronze heads in Paris, 27 February).
According to a report in China Newsweek (中国新闻周刊), the Fund for the Recovery of Chinese Cultural Relics Lost Overseas (中华抢救流失海外文物专项基金) protested against the planned auction in a letter as early as July 2008. Subsequently, Liu Yang, a Peking lawyer, organised a lawyers’ action committee to sue Christie’s; soon, the committee had 100 members. But the Fund’s director declined to sue, saying that this would preclude chances of a negotiated purchase of the artifacts at a relatively low price The director of the Yuanmingyuan museum also declined to act as plaintiff, saying it was up to the government to do so and that it was doubtful such a case could be won, considering the two heads had changed hands several times since they were taken out of China. Finally, Liu announced that the World Aisin-Gioro Family Association, a previously unknown group supposedly uniting the descendants of the imperial dynasty, would act as plaintiff. (Despite this, Zhou Di, a member of the association, assured the public that the family “would never treat this national treasure as private property.”) He also revealed that on the day of the auction — 23 February — the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars in France (a group closely linked to the Chinese embassy) would organise demonstrations, and that it is calling for the boycott of Christie’s business in China, “so that they would lose more than they gained”. After the auction, according to the Erlanger article, the State Administration of Cultural Relics issued a statement saying that the sale would “have a serious effect on Christie’s development in China.” Liu Yang’s announced that his team planned to track down the buyer and proceed with the litigation — though another lawyer on the team, Zhang Shenggui, specified that this they would only do so if the buyer was a foreigner.
The auction itself, which NYT art critic Souren Melikian called “historic,” was that of the Yves Saint Laurent – Pierre Berge collection. Within it, the two heads were minor items; but the Chinese debate took little note of the context.
On the Chinese Internet, the auction was the hottest topic for a while. On the QQ forum, the post about a French court’s decision to go ahead with the auction received over 150 thousand comments in two days. The comments reflected the usual pattern: a mixture of views, dominated by those advocating retaliation against France. There was, in general, no differentiation between Pierre Berge and France as a nation; the comments reflected that previous anger at France because of the Jin Jing affair has not been forgotten. There was also no discussion of the status of the artifacts under international law. In fact, Liu Yang and others had acknowledged that it is unlikely that a legal challenge would succeed. But the discussion was phrased in terms of justice and morality, not law.
The QQ discussion board allows readers to “support” comments they like, making it easier to identify dominant opinions. The most popular views by this measure were those that argued that the statues must not be bought back but only “taken” back as they had been taken from China unlawfully; two comments expressing this view garnered around 20,000 “support” clicks in the first two days after their publication (by 26 February). (Two years ago, the Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho bought a head from the same series at a Sotheby’s auction and donated it to China.) A variation on this view, holding that that buying the statues back would be a waste of money, and it should be used instead to help China’s economy weather the crisis, for “when China has become a really strong country, then there will be nothing to fear itty-bitty France for,” received about 10,000 “support” clicks. But the view of a poster from Shanghai, who called for a “second boycott of French goods,” received over 19,000, trailing closely behind the most popular comments. On the other hand, a post from Xi’an that argued that since the statues had been acquired legally it was irresponsible to “play with the Chinese people’s patriotism” by goading them into protests, also received a decent 5,000 “support” clicks. Nonetheless, subsequent comments were heavily skewed towards the pro-boycott camp, with one respondent proposing that celebrities using French products should also be subjected to a boycott. As to how the figures would eventually be “taken” back to China, this was left unclear: some posters argued that “when China is strong, they will come back naturally,” while others argued that “we should take them back the same way as they took them away.” There were also those who expressed the view that it did not matter where the exhibits were as long as they “heralded China’s 5000-year-old civilization.”
The two heads were sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for over $35 million, a sum that was seen as far out of touch with the artistic quality of the statues. This raised suspicions that the buyer may not in fact be a collector. These were confirmed on 1 March, when the buyer identified himself as an advisor to the Fund for the Recovery of Chinese Cultural Relics Lost Overseas (based outside the mainland), and declared that he had no intention of paying the price but was simply doing his patriotic duty by obstructing the sale.
To be continued.