Auctions and Civil Disobedience (UPDATE)

The Christie’s Auction catalog with a bronze rabbit head

Earlier this week I was able to watch a screening on Earth Day of ‘Bidder 70’ a new documentary which examines the story of Tim DeChristopher. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. His crime? He attended an oil and gas lease auction and bid on Utah land which was being leased for oil and gas exploration with no intent to buy the land (he didn’t have the money) or to drill on it. I’m not as interested in going through a review of the documentary itself. I thought overall its well worth taking a look at, but my biggest frustration with the story was it left out a lot of the details of the auction process, how he was able to bid and refuse to pay, and how his act of civil disobedience ended up being successful.

From what I gathered the Bush administration in their last weeks in office put opened up lots of land for oil and gas leases, and that DeChristopher successfully ruined these auctions. And then when the Obama administration took office the Department of the Interior later decided not to auction these parcels of land after all. The film does a great job of presenting DeChristopher’s story, and conveying his indignation at the ruination of what appears to be some pristine Utah wilderness.

But watching the documentary I was most struck by the connections between a couple of events that I’ve traced here before: the Bronze zodiac auctions in France from the Yves Saint-Laurent sale, and the sentencing of antiquities looters in Utah. Environmental and cultural heritage issues are inextricably linked, and the different priorities of prosecution and sentencing on display here were really striking.

If you aren’t familiar with the sad saga of the Chinese Zodiac heads, here’s a quick overview. Over 150 years ago the Summer Palace near Beijing was looted by British troops. Lots of art was burned, looted, destroyed, or lost. Some objects which had been taken were parts of a beautiful ornate fountain/clock mechanism which had the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. A handful of these still existing heads have been purchased by Chinese repatriation advocates on the open market. And two of these bronze figurines, the rabbit and the rat were acquired by Yves Saint Laurent. Well on his death many objects from his estate were set to go up for auction at Christie’s in Paris. But the looting of the Chinese Summer Palace is a notorious event in Chinese history, and the Chinese government lodged a number of protests at the sale. When the two heads were up for auction, the successful bid was nearly 32 million Euro. The winning bidder was Cao Mingchao, owner of a small auction house in China. After the auction he refused to pay the bid, exacting the same kind of civil disobedience that DeChristopher went to prison for. After the auction Mingchao stated “What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid (…) I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” Despite some hints at a French prosecution of the bidder, those never materialized and the heads as I understand it were never actually auctioned.

There have been a number of controversial sales of Precolumbian and native american sacred items in France in recent months. And it seems that despite some legal attempts to block sales, this kind of technically legal, but morally objectionable auction; which the current heritage law framework deems ok; will only be blocked if an auction house bends to public pressure or if there’s a bidder exercising civil disobedience.

Remember that in this part of the country the Four-Corners investigation uncovered a large network of illicit native american objects. That investigation led to 3 suicides and a number of citizens being indicted and later pleading guilty to heritage crimes. But no custodial sentences have been imposed. The sad takeaway is I think that you can loot native american sites, and the Federal government will have irregular investigations, but mess with the leasing of oil and gas, and you’ll feel the weight of the federal government.

Here’s the trailer for Bidder 70:
Bidder 70 – Trailer from Gage & Gage Productions on Vimeo.

UPDATE:

And now it looks like the rat and rabbit will be returned to China: http://bit.ly/ZpP67I

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China Wants its Rabbit and Rat Back

China looks to be redoubling its efforts to repatriate the bronzes from the Summer Palace, enlisting Jackie Chan, erecting a statue of Victor Hugo who decried the looting in 1860, and circulating a petition.

From AFP:

China has renewed a call for the return of relics looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 150 years ago — an act seen as a cause of national humiliation at the hands of Western armies.

The Yuanmingyuan, a summer resort garden for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was pillaged by a joint British and French military expedition during the second Opium War on October 18-19, 1860.

Cultural officials have urged private collectors in China to forgo profits from the antiquities trade and return the looted relics, the China Daily reported Tuesday.

The Yuanmingyuan park authority has also called on museums to return such items, and for a boycott on auctions featuring relics, the Global Times added. . . .

“At least 1.5 million relics from the Yuanmingyuan have either been looted or otherwise lost over the years,” the China Daily quoted Chen Mingjie, head of the Yuanmingyuan park administration, as saying.

Xinhua news agency, citing the UN cultural body UNESCO, said some 1.64 million Chinese relics are housed in more than 200 museums in 47 countries, some of which are believed to have been looted from the Yuanmingyuan.

In recent years, cultural relic experts from China have sought to categorise and bring back looted Chinese antiquities, but their efforts have been waylaid by legal and historical obstacles, the China Daily said.

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China to Research Foreign Museum Archives for Chinese Artifacts

https://i2.wp.com/rtoddking.com/images/chinasum2004/04092110.jpg?resize=400%2C300

  China seems to be taking a new approach to repatriation, creating research teams which will inspect the holdings of museums to “document” the archives.  This has led to speculation that China may use its growing economic clout to demand the return of objects.  

Peter Foster reports for the Telegraph:

The sacking of the Old Summer Palace – or ‘Yuanmingyuan’ – as punishment for the torture and execution of 18 emissaries sent by western powers to Beijing, remains an emotive subject in China, where it is still viewed as one of the nation’s great humiliations.
The decision to try and document the millions of items now scattered round the world comes as China takes an increasing interest in retrieving artefacts that were removed from China during the colonial period and in the early 20th century.
“We don’t really know how many relics have been plundered since the catalogue of the treasures stored in the garden was burned during the catastrophe,” the palace’s current director Chen Mingjie told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
“But based on our rough calculations, about 1.5 million relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.” China’s sensitivity towards such ‘looted’ treasures was demonstrated in March when a Chinese collector sabotaged the auctioning of two bronze heads taken from the Old Summer Palace, bidding £13.9m for each, but later refusing to pay.

Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

French judge Denies China’s Claim for Summer Palace Bronzes

A french judge on Monday denied China’s claims for these two bronze objects, looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860, to be auctioned at the Yve Saint Laurent auction tonight in Paris.  They had been transferred a number of times during the 20th century, and the alleged wrongdoing took place nearly 150 years ago.  If China wants the objects back they have only two options.

First, as Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s partner, offered earlier “The only thing I ask is for China to give human rights, liberty to Tibet and to welcome the Dalai Lama.”

Or second,  they could purchase the objects at the auction.  As Barbara Demick’s piece in the L.A. Times notes:

An entire museum in Beijing run by the Poly Corp., which is operated by a state-owned military enterprise, is filled with repatriated artworks, including several other bronze animal heads that along with the two held by Saint Laurent were part of the set of 12 representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac.

The museum bought the tiger, monkey and ox through auction houses in Hong Kong in 2000, while the pig’s head was recovered in New York by Hong Kong casino magnate Stanley Ho, who in turn donated it to the museum.

But the Chinese are increasingly resentful at the high prices they’ve had to fork out. Ho reportedly paid $9 million in a deal brokered by Sotheby’s to get the horse head back from Taiwan. Christie’s was reported to be asking $10 million each for the rabbit and rat in behind-the-scenes negotiations in the last few years with prospective Chinese buyers.

“It is really shameful. They are like kidnappers demanding ransom to give back your own child,” said Li Xingfeng, one of a group of 81 Chinese lawyers who filed the lawsuit last week in Paris trying to block the sale. They have vowed to pursue the case to recover the heads from whomever might buy them.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

"it’s got great historical significance and ought to be returned.”

So says Patty Gerstenblith, quoted in today’s New York Times article detailing the efforts of China to prevent the sale of two bronzes taken during the burning of the imperial Summer Palace in 1860:

Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer who is helping to organize the lawsuit threatened in France, said he had located a descendant of China’s royal family to serve as plaintiff in the case.


“The Old Summer Palace, which was plundered and burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, is our nation’s unhealed scar, still bleeding and aching,” Mr. Lui said. “That Christie’s and Pierre Bergé would put them up for auction and refuse to return them to China deeply hurts our nation’s feelings.”


Mr. Liu also asserted that the sale would violate a 1995 United Nations convention governing the repatriation of stolen or illegally exported cultural relics.


But Patty Gerstenblith, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago who specializes in cultural-property issues, said that France never ratified the convention and that even if it had, the agreement does not apply retroactively to objects looted decades or centuries ago.


“My view is this was looted, but it would be difficult to get that legally back,” she said in a telephone interview on Monday. “But it’s got great historical significance and ought to be returned.”


Professor Gerstenblith suggested that one solution might be for the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Foundation to negotiate with China and offer it at a reasonable price. “It would probably be in the best interest of everybody if they made a deal privately with China,” she said.

Previous posts on this dispute here and here.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China Will Sue over Looted Bronzes

AFP is reporting that China will bring a repatriation suit in France over bronze statues taken from the Old Summer Palace before it was burned in 1860.

Chinese lawyers will sue auction giant Christie’s over the sale of relics owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent which they say were stolen from a looted Beijing palace, according to state press.  The lawyers are hoping that French courts will stop the auction house from selling two bronze animal heads at a February sale in Paris and order the return of the relics to China, the Beijing Times reported.  “The lawsuit will be placed before a French court in accordance with international law,” Liu Yang, one of 67 Chinese lawyers working on the case, told the paper.  “We are demanding that the auction house stop the sale and order the owner of the stolen items to return them.”  The relics currently belong to the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and were being put up for auction by the late fashion magnate’s partner Pierre Berge, the paper said.

This should shape up to be a fascinating dispute.  There’s little question I think the bronzes were taken under lass-than-noble circumstances by the British.  More background on the dispute here.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Call for Return of Chinese "Cultural Relics"

Both China Daily and CCTV have reported on China’s efforts to seek the return of two bronze animal heads, which were stolen from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860 by an Anglo-French coalition during the Second Opium War. They were created in the 18th century. I learned with great interest that it was Lord Elgin who ordered the burning of the Summer Palace — perhaps to discourage Chinese forces from kidnapping and as recompense for mistreating prisoners. Students of history will know his father was Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord of Elgin who removed the Parthenon frescoes from Greece.
Charles George Gordon, a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers wrote:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

These heads, one of a rabbit and one of a mouse were two of 12 sculptures which were taken. Five others are still missing. Christies has announced these objects will be on sale next February in the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge Collection auction in Paris. At least some of the proceeds from the sale will be used for AIDS prevention. The two items are expected to fetch at least 8 million Euros. Any legaly claim for these sculptures will have long-since expired, despite the less-than-noble way in which they were looted.

The China’s Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Fund, a privately funded organization has indicated it may try to purchase these objects and return them to China. In 2003 and 2004 the organization attempted to buy back these objects, but the asking price was $10 million. As the spokesperson told Daily China, “At that time, we bought back the pig’s head for less than $1 million. We think the offered prices are unreasonable and unacceptable.” China, an emerging economic power is in a unique position among nations of origin, as it can often use its considerable economic clout to buy back objects which were removed from the country during the imperial age.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com