China fights to stop sale of stolen relics

Source:- Saibal Dasgupta

BEIJING: The Chinese foreign ministry on Tuesday joined forces with a group of Chinese lawyers, who have been trying to stop Christie's from auctioning two bronze statues looted from Beijing 150 years back. The lawyers have been overruled by a Paris court, but the Chinese government is now trying to make it a political issue.

The emerging drama is set to encompass the entire world of art relics that might one day question the holding of Indian relics like the Kohinoor in foreign museums and drawing rooms. Sotheby’s, another auction house, is expected to auction the 144-year old Pearl Carpet of Baroda in mid-March while items used by Mahatma Gandhi's is also due for auction.

With the Paris court giving the go-ahead, Christie's is due to auction two Qing dynasty bronze animal heads tomorrow. The bronze heads depicting a rabbit and a rat were looted from Beijing's Summer Place by British and French forces in 1860.

"The western powers have plundered a great amount of Chinese cultural relics in wars, including many precious items robbed from the Old Summer Palace. All these should be returned to China," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said on Tuesday.

The statement suggested that China was ready to go beyond the auction of these two bronze heads and demand the return of thousands of art and cultural relics looted from the country. If Beijing earns success with the two bronze heads, it might open up a Pandora's Box with several countries like India demanding the return of their relics.

"It is the international community's consensus as well as the basic cultural rights and interest of the people of the original owning country of cultural assets to protect cultural relics and return them to the original owning countries," Ma said.

Christie’s has said that the sale is legal and it would go ahead with the auction on Wednesday. They are expected to fetch between $10 million to $13 million apiece.

Cultural relics have figured in political controversies in India as well. A R Antulay, as Maharashtra chief minister, had made an issue of the Bhavani sword of Shivaji and vowed to bring it back from the United Kingdom.

The Chinese government and some local businessmen have been very pro-active on this score. They have purchased a sizable amount of old relics taken from the country in auctions across the world. An entire state-run museum in Beijing is full of old relics that have been brought back from other parts of the world. But the government is finding it increasingly difficult to pay high prices to get them back. Hence, the battle over cultural rights.
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