The designer Yves Saint Laurent died last year, and the collection of art he and partner Pierre Berge amassed over their lifetime is now up for sale at a Christie’s auction in Paris next week. Among the many treasures to be auctioned are two bronzes from the old Chinese Summer Palace in Beijing. They are from a collection of 12 zodiac pieces that used to adorn a fountain in the gardens of the palace and were commissioned for Emperor Qianlong. China is demanding them back, since they were looted from China in 1860 by French and British armies during the Opium War.
Stolen artworks from war is not a new topic, nor is the attempts of various governments trying to recover art that was looted. This particular collection is significant, since 5 pieces of the zodiac collection are already on display in Beijing (displayed above). Recovering these 2 pieces would rejoin the rabbit and the rat’s head to the collection.
I wrote in a previous posting about the possible reunification of another piece of Chinese art, so it should be no surprise that I’m for getting as many pieces back together as possible. The question though is how it should be done, and should owners who weren’t part of the original looting get restitution for their loss. Yves Saint Laurent acquired these pieces legally through a Paris art broker. So is his estate due anything? These are tougher questions to answer and one left for the French court, which is expected to rule on Monday, hours before the auction opens.
Update 2/23/09: The French court threw out the case, and ordered the APACE, the Chinese firm that brought the suit to pay damages of 1,000 euro each to Pierre Berge and to the auction house. In other news, Pierre Berge has said that China would have to massively improve their civil rights record, before he would even consider handing over the pieces to China.