China Wants Zodiac Sculptures Returned

Contested cultural relics create conflict

by Dan Walsh
February 17, 2009
Cultural artifacts are a funny lot. They tend to move around frequently, and in doing so become ambassadors of a particular culture to the entire world. It's a wonderful thing that a child in France can learn about ancient China simply by going to a museum a few blocks from her home. Unfortunately, many of these relics were initially obtained in an unsavory manner - often spoils of war. But what happens when these relics are locked away in a private collection away from public eyes? What happens when the culture who created an artifact wants it back?

The Old Summer Palace of Emperor Qianlong in Beijing was burnt down and looted by Anglo-French Allied forces during the second Opium War in 1860. Among the numerous absconded artifacts were 12 bronze sculptures which formed part of a zodiacal clepsydra that decorated the walls of the Calm Sea Pavilion within the palace. The clepsydra was an elaborate water clock engineered by famed Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione, and each of the bronze heads represented one of the 12 animals on the Chinese zodiac calendar. Two of these heads, the rat and rabbit, made their way into a private French collection and are scheduled to be auctioned on February 23-25, 2009. China is understandably upset.

China and France signed the Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects in 1995, which was supposed to expedite the return of such stolen artifacts. It is under this convention that China argues that the two sculptures should be returned. However, it is unclear whether or not these sculptures fall under the convention's jurisdiction, given the date they were stolen. Christie's, the auction house handling the exchange, as well as the owner, Pierre Bergé - who is also, ironically a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO - claim they have legal right to the statues and plan to proceed with the auction, despite China's protestation and threatened legal action. Christie's estimates the statues will fetch 8-10 million euros each, so really, who can blame them for not wanting to give up the statues?

While it's possible that Bergé has every legal right to sell the statues, it begs the question whether or not there is a higher, moral obligation. Is angering all of China really worth 16-20 million euros? Conversely, who's going to pay that much knowing they may one day be legally obligated to return the busts at a loss? The notion of the winning bidder being firmly placed in the center of China's cross hairs may be enough to keep many potential buyers away. Hopefully this will enable a philanthropist who understands the importance of a nation's cultural heritage to purchase the statues at a lower price and return them to China.
The two controversial sculptures from the private art collection of Pierre Bergé and the late Yves Saint-Laurent