China: Looted cultural relics in YSL auction should be returned

BEIJING (AP) – China said Tuesday that it was “ridiculous” for the longtime partner of French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent who owns two Chinese imperial bronzes to say he would return the relics to Beijing if the government gave Tibet freedom.

The disputed Chinese bronze fountainheads – of a rabbit and a rat – are due for sale at a three-day Paris auction of art from the collection of the late French fashion designer. China has opposed the auction, saying the artifacts should be returned.

Pierre Berge, the longtime partner of the French fashion icon, has suggested that the Chinese government should worry about human rights in its country.

“I’m absolutely ready to give myself to China, with my two heads of the sculpture,” Berge said Monday. “The only thing I ask is, for the Chinese government to have human rights, to give liberty to the Tibet people and to welcome the Dalai Lama.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu rejected Berge’s suggestion that the two could be traded. He reiterated China’s position that the auction of the looted imperial bronzes is an offense to the Chinese people.

“To infringe upon Chinese people’s cultural rights under the pretext of human rights, this is just ridiculous,” he said.

“In modern history, Western imperial powers have looted a lot of China’s cultural relics including those in the Summer Palace,” Ma said. “These cultural relics should be returned to China.”

Ma’s comments came a day after a French judge refused to halt the sale of the Chinese artifacts in Christie’s auction.

In Hong Kong, a small group protested outside the French consulate Tuesday, holding banners and chanting slogans to demand the return of the bronzes.

“These two items are national treasures. They shouldn’t be put up for sale in auction,” said pro-Beijing lawmaker Chan Hak-kan. “France has a moral responsibility to return the two Chinese bronze fountainheads intact to China.”

The bronze heads disappeared from the summer Imperial Palace on the outskirts of Beijing when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War in 1860.

The fountainheads date to the early Qing Dynasty, established by invading Manchu tribesmen in 1644. The Christie’s catalog says they were made for the Zodiac fountain of the summer Imperial Palace.

They are expected to sell for up to $13 million each, according to preauction estimates.

A China-linked group, APACE, had sought to block the sale of the bronzes. The group acknowledged that Saint Laurent acquired the bronzes legally, but said they should be returned to China or at least displayed in a museum.

Christie’s said in a statement earlier this month that while it “respects the cultural context around the sale of the fountainheads, we respectfully believe the auction will proceed.”

The issue threatens to further strain tensions with France that have led to protests and calls from the Chinese public to boycott French goods. China canceled a December summit with the European Union to protest talks between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese accuse of supporting Tibetan separatism.

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Associated Press writer Dikky Sinn contributed to this report from Hong Kong.

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