Finding lost treasure

2013-7-8 13:30:00 From: Global Times

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 12 bronze heads, each bearing the likeness of a zodiac animal, graced a fountain at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. When British and French forces ransacked and destroyed the palace in 1860, many relics including the animal heads were stolen. The thefts became a rallying symbol for Chinese humiliation and anger at foreign oppression.

The anger did not subside over time. When two of the bronze heads, depicting a rat and a rabbit, were sold via French auction house Christie's in February 2009, the sale prompted controversy and outrage in China. A Chinese buyer, Cai Mingchao, won the bid, but the deal collapsed when he refused to pay. It was only when they were returned and placed in the National Museum of China on June 28 of this year that some semblance of resolution was found.

The return came courtesy of luxury goods moguls, the Pinault family, who purchased the heads in April 2013 and expressed their desire to return them to China. This was shortly after the Christie's became the first international auction house allowed to operate independently in Chinese Mainland.

However, with so many looted Chinese relics still remaining in foreign museums or private collections, Chinese academics, authorities and the public are still debating the best way to bring these invaluable items back to their homeland.

Scattered worldwide

So far, five of the 12 bronze animal heads from the Old Summer Palace have been returned, but the whereabouts of five of the others remains unknown.

In 2000, the cow head, tiger head and monkey head sculptures were returned and placed in the Poly Art Museum in Beijing. Three years later, the pig head was returned after wealthy Macao entrepreneur Stanley Ho bought the sculpture from a US art collector. In 2007, he bought another sculpture, a horse head, and donated it to the Poly Art Museum.

According to the Chinese Cultural Relics Association, over 10 million Chinese cultural relics were taken from the country between 1840 and 1949, many of which are now stored at major museums in Europe and the US.

The number of relics plundered from the Old Summer Palace alone is estimated to be around 1.5 million, now housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.

A majority of them are being showcased in the British Museum and the Fontainebleau Art Museum in France, according to media reports.

Hidden obstacles

When the Pinault family told Chinese relics authorities in April that they planned to donate the sculptures to China, the public started to wonder whether such donation would become the primary method by which looted relics are returned home.

"I don't think it will become the main method as such donations require not only a warm-hearted donor but also political and diplomatic negotiations. This is a rather rare case," Liu Yang, an expert on relics and member of the Old Summer Palace authorities, told the Global Times, adding that he didn't rule out the possibility completely.

Liu, along with other experts, also pointed out that the majority of the looted Chinese treasures are owned by private collectors, which make them very hard to trace.

According to the UNESCO Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, any cultural relics looted or lost during wars should be returned, regardless of how long they have been away.

Based on this convention, many experts said the auctioning of the looted relics was illegal.

However, a Beijing-based lawyer, also named Liu Yang, pointed out that this convention lacks legal strength as it can only be applied to countries that have signed the convention, and many European countries and the US have not.

He led a group of 67 lawyers in a court action in Paris aimed at blocking the auction, but was unsuccessful. "International law at present lacks the power to solve the looted relics issue, which makes it extremely difficult to clarify whether those looted relics are being kept illegally, which in turn makes it difficult to file lawsuits," he said.

Alternative methods

Generally speaking, donations, purchases at auctions, diplomatic negotiations and exchanges are the most common methods through which looted relics are reclaimed, experts said.

Chen Lvsheng, deputy curator of the National Museum of China, said in an interview with the Beijing News on June 29 that setting up a national catalogue of looted relics overseas would be a crucial step toward reclaiming them.

Chen noted that the catalogue should include more specific details of how they were looted, who looted them and how they changed hands.

Liu Yang, the relics expert, disagreed with Chen, and said it would be almost impossible to create such a catalogue. "We don't even have a specific catalogue of the relics originally located in the Old Summer Palace, how can we possibly create one for looted ones? It would be a very costly and complicated process," Liu said.

Setting up a comprehensive catalogue of the relics currently within China is a more urgent task in his opinion. "The country should also strengthen its efforts to fight against the exporting of relics and properly protect the ones we still have in our country," Liu added.

Although there is no powerful international law governing the return of relics, Liu Yang, the lawyer, said that Chinese laws, as well as laws in other countries, do provide some possibilities for lawsuits.

In 2007, he filed a lawsuit with the Luoyang Intermediate People's Court in Henan Province, against a Spanish American, accusing him of attempting to sell two sculptures of Buddha heads that had been stolen by his ancestor from the Longmen Grottoes in the 1930s. It was the first lawsuit of this kind relating to looted relics, but it failed when the ruling indicated that individuals cannot file these lawsuits, because relics belong to the nation.

"Such lawsuits need support from authorities at all levels. Victory in these cases is more likely if the authorities instigate litigation," Liu said.

China is not the only country in the world that has relics taken by invading forces. There are examples of other countries that have successfully reclaimed relics via extended campaigns and other diplomatic methods.


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