Chinese officials are angry over the proposed sale of two bronze animal heads that were taken from the zodiac-themed fountain of the Old Summer Palace when it was looted by British and French troupes during the Second Opium War (1856-1860). These objects, a bronze rabbit head and a bronze mouse head, were in the collection of the late fashion designer, Yves St. Laurent. The auction will be held in February 2009 but the Chinese government has already stated their refusal to buy them:
“We always maintain the same stance on the issue of cultural relics lost overseas,” said Song Xinchao, museum director at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, according to the China Daily. “We will not purchase things that belong to us.”
In 2000, the Chinese government asked Southeby’s and Christie’s of Hong Kong to remove four items from auction. The items included a bronze monkey head and a bronze ox head from the same zodiac-themed fountain, a bronze tiger head from a clock, and a hexagonal vase taken from the palace. The government asked that the auction houses not to sell the relics in Hong Kong because they felt that it was ”insulting and deeply painful to the Chinese people to have these things sold before their eyes.”
The destruction of the Old Summer Palace (圆明园) and its looting by European soldiers is a very sensitive topic in China:
Though there are only a few ruins left, the Chinese government has kept the episode alive in history books and propaganda as an example of the country’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners.
The heads were later purchased by the state-owned China Poly Group Corporation and were placed on display in their museum in Beijing.
In 2007 another looted item, a bronze horse head from the zodiac fountain, was also auctioned by Sotheby’s. It was purchased by Macao gambling tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-Sun and given back to China, Ho stating “I feel honored to have played a role in saving lost Chinese cultural relics from overseas.”
Relic smuggling and cultural theft is a huge problem for many countries, including China. The Chinese government is actively seeking the return of other relics that have been illegally exported over the past years.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)