November 17, 2009 / 6:40 AM / 9 years ago

China calls for return of art treasures from abroad

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - China has ratcheted up pressure for imperial treasures to be repatriated, condemning overseas auctions of its relics and demanding they come home.

China is particularly eager to get back a series of bronze animal heads looted in 1860 by British and French soldiers when they burned down the Qing emperors’ summer palace in Beijing.

China’s drive to recover the heads has alarmed Western museums and auction houses, who are also sparring with Greece and other nations over the return of historic art treasures.

A March auction of two heads from the estate of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent was disrupted after the winning Chinese bidder refused to pay for them, on patriotic grounds.

“These cultural relics should be returned to China,” Liu Zhenmin, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, told a Monday meeting on the return of cultural property to countries of origin.

“We believe that such auctions run counter to the underlying spirit of relevant international treaties and UN resolutions, and are serious infringements of China’s cultural rights and interests.”

Chinese art, whether ancient or more contemporary, has fetched record prices at international auctions in recent years, and at times defying the global economic downturn.

But the official Xinhua news agency quoted Liu as saying that illicit appropriation of, and trafficking in, cultural property is a “sacrilege” to history and civilization.

“While enjoying broad consensus of the international community, protecting cultural heritage and promoting the restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin are inalienable and fundamental cultural rights of the people of countries of origin, as well as cultural responsibilities incumbent on all governments,” Liu said.

Chinese art authorities are planning to catalog Chinese pieces currently housed in overseas institutions, Chinese media reported earlier this year.

Many of the historic temples, treasures and art in China were lost to war and to the wanton destruction of the Cultural Revolution, when many mainland Chinese scholars were also jailed, beaten or killed.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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