Pillage runs in the family

Fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent recently died, leaving behind an enormous and valuable art collection. It’s on the auction block at Christie’s in Paris and is expected to make an astonishing 300 million pounds.

About 20 million of that total is the estimated price of two 18th c. Chinese bronzes: a rat and a rabbit. Problem is, China says they were stolen and has put 69 lawyers on the case to get them back.

The rat and rabbit were among 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac that were part of a fountain built for the Qing dynasty emperor by French and Italian Jesuit priests. They were allegedly taken in 1860 when allied French and British armies under the command of Lord Elgin sacked the palace after the imperial Government murdered British diplomats. The Chinese suit has echoes of Greece’s demand for the return from the British Museum of the Marbles that his father, the seventh Lord Elgin, removed from the Parthenon.

Family values imperalist style, I guess.

The legal case is a shaky one. A lot of priceless art has been stolen by invaders of various types. Getting it back is no easy feat.

Even with this particular zodiac set, China has had to buy pieces back when they’ve come up at other auctions, or they’ve received them as a gift from a wealthy benefactor, so there isn’t much in the way of precedent for legal success.

China has only recently started taking action to end the near-constant drain of cultural patrimony. Policing all the historical sites in China is as close to impossible as these tasks get because of the massive size of the country, its enormous population, and many decades of governmental not-giving-a-shit.

The latter are coming to an end, though. One of former president George W. Bush’s last acts in office was to sign an import ban on a wide swath of Chinese antiquities.

This action against the Laurent auction may be a reflection of the Chinese government’s new focus on stopping the free-for-all trade in antiquities. It might also be sheer revenge for Sarkosy’s criticism of China’s Tibet policy.

5 thoughts on “Pillage runs in the family

  1. I read your blog regularly. It’s one of, sadly few, history blogs out there. I find this site to be the most varied and informative.

    I keep my own, relatively private, blog wherein I post stories that strike my fancy: I typically write about things I know and am passionate about. Do you mind if I link your site–and this post–to my blog?

    After reading this post, I started to think and compound on what you said.

    I’m writing a post now, but will hold off on publishing it until I’ve heard from you. If you like, you can read said post beforehand as well.

    Thank you,

    1. I don’t mind at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m delighted you enjoy this blog and am very interested in reading your thoughts on this story or any other. Please go right ahead and publish. :yes:

  2. That’s the situation with “art” in the museums of imperial powers, England in particular. Have a look at Michael Carrington’s article Officers, Gentlemen and Thieves: The Looting of Monasteries during the 1903/4 Younghusband Mission to Tibet, Modern Asian Studies 37 no. 1 (Feb 2003) pp. 81-109. A.L. Haddow described the same acts of looting in: Tibet, 1903-1904, with the Machine Gun Section 1st Battalion the Norfolk Regiment, The Britannia (1933) p. 67. There are a lot of other testimonies that looting was regarded as ordinary for these British gentleman soldiers. Their loot is largely still kept in British museums. I think it’s great that the British Museum doesn’t charge for admission.

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