When Lord Elgin’s Anglo-French forces marched on Beijing in 1860, they were largely unopposed. It was quite possibly the most pathetic episode in China’s 5,000 year military history.
But it was hardly a moment the British and French can recall very proudly either, given that they burned down the magnificent Summer Palace. Regret at the time seems to have been curbed to the limited opportunity for looting. One British officer ruefully recalled: “These palaces were so large and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully.”
However, a reminder of some of that plunder came to light this week, at an international auction. Christie’s (a British firm) caused controversy in China by selling two bronze statues (for a French owner) originally taken from the Summer Palace in 1860.
The sculptures depict a rat and a rabbit, and form part of the 700 piece Yves Saint Laurent collection, which was auctioned off in Paris by the fashion designer’s lifelong partner and co-founder of his couture house, Pierre Berge.
There were originally 12 bronzes. They decorated the Qing’s rural palace in outer Beijing, and represented the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Five have been returned to China, but the location of the five others remains a mystery.
The sale of the rat and the rabbit – for $39 million – at auction on Wednesday, has stoked Chinese anger. Students at Capital Normal University held aloft banners at a Beijing protest, stating: “China has unquestionable ownership of the looted relics.”
Acting on behalf of China – which has said the bronzes should be returned – the Association for the Protection of the Art of China in Europe submitted an application to a Paris court to prevent the sale. However, the French court denied the petition, and ordered the plaintiff to pay Christie’s and Berge’s legal expenses.
Berge, 79, plans to donate part of the proceeds to AIDs research; and part to a foundation that will honour Yves Saint Laurent.
Lord Elgin, whose troops seized the bronzes, seems to have been a chip off the family block. His father Thomas Bruce chiselled off and then shipped about half the surviving sculptures from the Athenian Acropolis to London. Known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, they remain in the British Museum, despite the Greeks demanding their return.
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