Controversial YSL Auction Kicks Off

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AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

Christie’s sale of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent’s massive art collection begins today and lasts through Wednesday (see photos of the items here). Expected to bring in more than $250 million (most of which will be donated to AIDS research), the auction is being touted as the “sale of the century”—and one that may rejuvenate a sluggish art market. A group of Chinese lawyers has asked a judge in Paris to halt the sale of two items—bronze sculptures of a rat and rabbit head that disappeared after French and British troops sacked Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860. Saint Laurent’s long-time partner, Pierre Berge, who is behind the sale, has said he will give the pieces back to China in return for improved human rights in Tibet. Meanwhile, Christie’s says the sale is legal, but the auction catalog doesn’t explain how the items arrived in Europe. Instead, it points out that the Palace’s water fountain clock, which featured the 12 animal heads, had already been dismantled before the pillaging troops arrived in Beijing:

“In 1795 the order was given to strip out and melt down the bronze pipe-work for the fountains and clepsydra, no doubt in order to augment China’s constant requirement for copper. Thus, even before the storming of the Yuanming Yuan by French and British troops in 1860, the Qianlong Emperor’s spectacular water features had already been dismantled and their pipe-work disbursed. These superb bronze heads, however, remain as a testament to an emperor’s caprice and the remarkable skill of the European missionary artists who worked for him.”

This account of history is debatable—a sketch, dated Dec 22, 1860, shows the water fountain still intact. The issue however, is not whether the sculptures were looted from the original fountain or from a storage room. For the many Chinese incensed by the continual sale of such relics, the issue is how to strengthen legal protection of cultural heritage, and how to repatriate relics without having to spend millions of dollars for their safe return.