Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bronze Statue Saga Continues

The story of those bronze statues sold at auction in Paris last week is far from over.

From The Associated Press:

BEIJING -- A Chinese art collector revealed himself as the man behind the winning bids for two imperial bronzes auctioned at Christie's over Beijing's objections, then announced he had no intention of paying the $36 million.

The audacious act of commercial sabotage exposes the tensions China and other countries, such as Greece and Egypt, face in trying to recover cultural objects plundered in war or stolen. One overseas expert in looted relics called the fake bids "brilliant" -- a ploy likely to be copied in future disputed sales.

The bogus bids were the latest attempt by both the Chinese government and private citizens to block the sale of the pieces, which disappeared when French and British forces sacked and burned the imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860 at the end of the second Opium War. Chinese view the devastation of the palace as a national humiliation.

Auction house owner Cai Mingchao said Monday he put in telephone bids for the bronze rat and rabbit heads -- part of a collection owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent -- during last week's auction in Paris. The three-day sale set a record for the most valuable private collection sold at auction, bringing more than $484 million.

"What I need to stress is that this money cannot be paid," Cai told a news conference in Beijing. "At the time, I was thinking that any Chinese would do this if they could ... I only did what I was obliged to."

Read On
This story has been interesting on many levels. The range of emotions that have been stirred over these bronze statues is incredible.

I can see where everyone is coming from on this one. As it says later in the article, it's pretty clear that the French owners legally have a right to these objects but that things are murkier in the ethical and political spheres.

The Chinese have a rough history of foreign invaders. It's not surprising to see a national reaction against the sale and profit of artifacts that were looted from their country.

I had a first-hand experience witnessing the aftermath of art looting while traveling in the summer of 2007 at the Bezeklik Caves near Turpan in the vast deserts of Xinjiang Province.

The caves were home to some of the earliest and finest Buddhist cave art on the Silk Road. But unfortunately a great deal of the art can no longer be found at the site.

Here is a brief write-up on the site from The Rough Guide to China:
The Bezeklik Caves, in a valley among the Flaming Mountains some 50km northeast of Turpan, are disappointing, offering mere fragments of the former wealth of Buddhist cave art here, dating back to 640 AD. The location is nonetheless strikingly beautiful, with stark orange dunes behind and a deep river gorge fringed in green below, but most of the murals were cut out and removed to Berlin by Albert Von Le Coq at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the remainder painstakingly defaced by Muslim Red Guards during the 1960s.
The fate of the art at these caves is particularly cruel: not only was the art looted out of China, but it was looted by a German man who took the looted items back to Nazi Germany where they were eventually destroyed during World War II.

If you ever find yourself in Turpan, these caves are probably worth checking out. More for the scenery than the remaining art though.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Funny you pointed that out. When the news first came out about these looted statues being sold I couldn't help but think about Xinjiang as well.

The example you gave is perfect, but le Coq actually excavated quite a few areas around here and took home a whole load. He's not the only one either. Numerous historically significant places here in Xinjiang have been taken advantage of by people excavating. It's not just limited to Germans either.

I wonder, though, would many people in China care if those artifacts hadn't been destroyed and happened to be on the auction block instead of the Summer Palace statues? Something worth thinking about.