February 24, 2009 / 11:20 AM / 10 years ago

China formally demands halt of bronze heads sale

BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese government formally demanded cancellation of the auction in Paris of two historic bronze sculptures claimed by China, after a previous effort by a cultural group was rejected by a French court.

People take part in a Christie's auction of the private art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent at the Grand Palais museum on the Champs Elysees in Paris February 23, 2009. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

The sculptures, of a rat and a rabbit head, are part of an art collection from the estate of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, which went on sale at a Christie’s auction that started in Paris on Monday.

China claims ownership of the heads that were taken from Beijing’s Summer Palace when it was razed by invading French and British forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.

“The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has formally informed the auctioneer of our strong opposition to the auction, and clearly demanded its cancellation,” Ma Zhaoxu, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a news conference.

APACE, an association representing Chinese cultural and heritage interests, had filed an appeal to have the sale blocked but was turned down by the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris.

Ma scorned an offer by Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s former business manager and companion, to exchange the sculptures for promises to guarantee human rights and allow exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, back into Tibet.

“Using the pretext of human rights to infringe on the Chinese people’s fundamental cultural rights is just ridiculous,” Ma said.

Interest in the case goes beyond the art world because of the tensions between Paris and Beijing over French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a separatist.

China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage also directly condemned the auction, saying any such sale was “in contravention of the basic spirit of the relevant international treaties.”

An Administration official also told the web site of the People’s Daily (www.people.com.cn) newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, that the auction “would seriously harm the cultural rights and national feeling of the Chinese people.”

Christie’s values the sculptures at 8 to 10 million euros each. Five of the original 12 heads are now in China.

Reporting by Liu Zhen; editing by Lucy Hornby and Valerie Lee

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