Chinese bronzes, Gandhi's glasses in art tussle

March 8, 2009 6:14:10 PM PDT
A bronze rabbit's head was the first to go under the hammer, then came Mohandas Gandhi's glasses and sandals. Auctions are becoming a new battleground for art dealers, activists and aggrieved countries dueling for plundered antiquities and lost pieces of heritage.

Roger Keverne, a London-based dealer in Chinese art, says the politicization of art has become "inevitable, and unfortunate."

"Who has a right to the world's culture?" he said.

Gandhi's glasses, as well as sandals, a watch and other artifacts belonging to the revered Indian independence leader, were sold to an Indian businessman on Thursday night in New York for $1.8 million - a bid aided by the Indian government.

Their owner, American collector and peace activist James Otis, offered to stop the sale and donate the items to India, if its leaders agreed to spend more on the poor. India rejected the demand as an infringement of the country's sovereignty and the auction went ahead.

The rabbit head and a companion piece depicting a rat, both taken from a Beijing palace in the 19th century, were sold by Christie's auction house last month over the objections of China, which sees them as stolen antiquities.

The items went into limbo last week when the successful bidder revealed that he had made the $40 million bid as a protest, and had no intention of paying. Chinese art dealer Cai Mingchao, who advises a non-governmental group seeking to repatriate looted Chinese art, said he had bid on the bronzes as a patriotic act.

Christie's, which sold the bronzes during an auction of items belonging to the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, refused to say what it would do next.

But some art market watchers say Christie's and other auction houses are caught up in a battle for public opinion over contested antiquities.

"Auctions by their very nature are public," said Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural heritage expert and professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago. "If something is sold through a dealer or gallery it can be sold secretly so it doesn't attract the same level of attention."

Tempers have been rising for years over the artifacts that fill Western museums and art collections - many acquired, or plundered, during years of war and imperial expansion.

The bronzes sold at Christie's were part of an elaborate water clock fountain, designed by Jesuit missionaries, that disappeared in 1860 when French and British forces sacked the Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing at the close of the second Opium War.

China has long sought their return and had urged Christie's to withdraw the bronzes. A Chinese-backed group tried and failed to get a Paris court to suspend the figures' sale. After the auction, China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage said it had "harmed the cultural rights and national feeling of the Chinese people."

"This is a particularly emotive subject - 1860 and the vandalism at the palace," said Keverne. "The way they were taken was in particularly distressing circumstances."

The sale further strained relations between France and China, already frayed over French boycotts in the run-up to last summer's Olympic Games and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's talks with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Pierre Berge, the bronzes' co-owner, suggested before the auction that China could have the treasures back if it improved its human rights record - an idea Beijing dismissed as "ridiculous." Berge said later he thought it was his criticism of China's human rights record in Tibet that led to Cai's action.

Increasing sensitivity about looted artifacts has prompted museums around the world to return antiquities to their homelands over the last few years. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts have all handed artifacts back to Greece or Italy.

But the British Museum has refused repeated Greek requests for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin marbles - 2,500-year-old sculptures and friezes removed in the early 19th century by British diplomat Lord Elgin. The museum says they are part of the world's heritage and are best displayed in London, where the public can view them for free.

One solution is for countries to buy back their own heritage. The Indian government said it would try to buy the Gandhi relics, which were not looted but given by him to supporters and a great-niece.

In 2007, Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho bought a bronze horse head - from the same group that included the rat and rabbit heads - before it was due to be auctioned and returned it to China.

Art experts agree that China has no legal claim to the figures. International laws governing looted antiquities do not cover 19th-century plunder by armies of the British Empire or Napoleon, whose treasures fill the Louvre museum in Paris.

But high-profile acts like Cai's could exert moral pressure and make it harder to resell the items.

Some art dealers caution that returning contested artifacts is a slippery slope.

"If governments start to reclaim art. it will be necessary for all the world's museums begin to give back their objects, " said Georges Pochet, an antiquarian in Asian art in the south of France. "It's not possible."

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