A few threads ago, we discussed the topic of who owns the Chinese imperial arts in the context of Taiwan vis-a-vis the Mainland.
Well – it may be timely to also discuss who should own the Chinese imperial arts in the context of China vis-a-vis great collections of art in the West looted from China during her century of shame.
Here is an article from Reuter about a Paris court’s rejection of China’s claims to stop the the auctioning of two sculptures, representing the head of a rat and the head of a rabbit, that were taken from the Summer Palace in Beijing when it was burned down by invading French and British forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
PARIS (Reuters) – A Paris court rejected a bid to block the sale of two bronze sculptures claimed by China that are to be auctioned with the art collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, a court official said on Monday.
APACE, an association representing Chinese cultural and heritage interests, filed an appeal to have the sale blocked but the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris rejected it, an official at the Paris court told Reuters.
The court also ordered APACE to pay auctioneer’s Christie’s and Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s former business manager and companion, 1,000 euros ($1,274) in costs each.
The two sculptures, representing the head of a rat and the head of a rabbit, were taken from the Summer Palace in Beijing when it was burned down by invading French and British forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
They were acquired by Saint Laurent and Berge as they built up what has been called one of the most important collections of art in private hands, but Chinese officials have said the sculptures rightfully belong to China and should be returned.
After Saint Laurent’s death last year, Berge decided to sell the collection, which is estimated to be worth up to $300 million, and donate the proceeds to medical research.
Before the ruling, he had expressed confidence that the appeal to block the sale would be rejected, telling Reuters that he was “completely protected by the law.”
Interest in the case went beyond the art world because of tensions between Paris and Beijing over French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a separatist.
Berge had offered to hand over the sculptures, valued at 8-10 million euros each, if China agreed to guarantee human rights and allow the Dalai Lama back into Tibet. The Dalai Lama says he only wants greater autonomy for the region.
Ignoring the politic gambits mentioned at the bottom of the article, I personally am torn by claims such as these.
On the one hand, but for the Western invasion, looting and unequal treaties, these prized heritage of Chinese culture would still be in China. So these art should go back to China (Of course, one might argue that given the warfare and turmoil China would subsequently suffer, it was probably best that these art were looted out of the country… ).
On the other hand, asking categorically people who possess these art today to turn over the art (for free) to the Chinese government may not be the most fair solution since the people who own these arts today probably had paid real money for these arts. That is, the people who own these looted arts are not the original looters (or inheritors of the original looters) – so why should they – who had (presumptively) bought these art fair and square – give up these art?
What do people think is the most just solution about the art that have been looted out of China and that exist in the great museums and great private collections around the world today?
Must Chinese compatriots be forced to spend millions to buy back looted treasures?
My quirky personal solution: Internationalize all great art wherever they are (this would include also art like the mona lisa in the louvre) – and start promoting all great art as World Heritage – open and belonging to ALL humanity – not just belonging to any one nation (or perhaps even civilization)… Have all great museums around the world become subsidiaries of a great UN museum of Arts for all Humanity…