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China opposes auctions of looted Qing Dynasty antiques

Publication Date : 02-11-2012


China's top cultural heritage administrator reiterated its objection to auctions of illegally exported Chinese relics, including those looted during wars.

It urged auctioneers to abide by international conventions and to respect the national feelings of people from the countries where the relics were looted.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage made the statements in response to Bonhams' upcoming auction of two Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) cultural relics.

The London-based auction house said on its website that the two items were taken in 1860 from Beijing's Old Summer Palace.

The company added that the two items, both from its 360-item catalogue of fine Chinese pieces, are scheduled to go under the hammer on November 8.

One of the pieces is a jade disc, which dates back to around 1811, with a bidding price between US$96,700 and $160,000.

The other piece is a jade hanging vase made during the period of the Emperor Qianlong (1735-95) and with a bidding price estimated between $65,000 and $130,000.

The accompanying records of the two items reveal that both pieces were looted by a British captain when the Old Summer Palace was raided by invading French and British forces in 1860.

The two pieces, given by the captain to his mother before 1863, stayed with the family until recently.

"We criticize any auction that goes against the spirit of international conventions and the common international understanding that cultural relics should be returned to their countries of origin," Tan Ping, director of the Division of Exit and Entry Supervision of Antiques under the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said on Thursday.

Tan added that the retrieval process of the pieces can't start without verification of the two items' origin, which is still under way.

"We'll keep a close eye on the matter," Tan said.

Liu Yang, a cultural relics expert, said that international auction houses frequently claim that they have secured relics from the Old Summer Palace, especially after the much-publicised auction of two looted bronze Zodiac animal heads by Christie's in early 2009.

"Every year, we see quite a number of relics, which are supposed to be from the Old Summer Palace, under the hammer," Liu said. "But such claims are hard to confirm."

Liu, who carried out a survey of lost relics of the Old Summer Palace in 2009 at the request of its management committee, said that the Palace's lost relics can be divided into four categories.

The first category refers to pieces belonging exclusively to the Palace, such as the famous 12 bronze Zodiac animal heads.

The second comprises items passed down among generations or kept in national museums and never sold since they left China.

The third comprises pieces made in pairs specifically for the Palace, which can be identified by referring to their sister pieces.

The fourth refers to pieces marked by the looters with information on when and where they were obtained, but subsequently sold and collected by various individuals.

"The two pieces to be auctioned belong to the second category," Liu said. "They are delicate and very good collection pieces. They're an inseparable part of the Old Summer Palace."


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