Off With Their Heads

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Chinese officials are unhappy about two very famous Chinese antiquities that are coming on the market. They’ll be part of Christie’s huge auction of the estate of Yves Saint Laurent, scheduled to take place in February at the Grand Palais in Paris. In 1860, the last year of the Second Opium War, French and British forces looted and burned the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. The destruction of the palace, actually a complex of magnificent buildings and gardens, remains to this day a prime symbol for the Chinese of national humiliation by foreign powers. For good measure the act was accomplished under the command of a Lord Elgin, the son of the Elgin who removed the Parthenon marbles from Athens to London.

Among the plundered treasures were twelve bronze animal heads, parts of a Chinese zodiac fountain designed by Jesuit missionaries that spouted water through the heads to mark the hours. (To be exact, each head would spout water for two hours, then all of them joined in together every day at noon. Must have been nice.) In recent years five of the heads have been brought back to China. Five others are still missing and may have been destroyed. And two, of a rabbit and a rat, found their way into the collection of Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge.

Repatriating the bronze heads has been a high profile cultural project for the Chinese. In 2000 three of them, an ox, a monkey and a tiger, were purchased at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong for $4 million by that peculiar Chinese institution the Poly Group, an operation spun off from the People’s Liberation Army that does business in armaments dealing, real estate, tourism and, very prominently, art acquisition. At any major auction where Chinese antiquities might be up for sale, it’s common for representatives from Poly’s culture division to be in the audience bidding. While its other divisions are busy selling arms to Pakistan and Zimbabwe, Poly Culture also sponsors traveling exhibitions and its own Poly museum of Chinese antiquities.

Another of the heads, a horse, was bought last fall by the Macau casino billionaire Stanley Ho. It was about to go up for auction at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong when Ho stepped in to make a pre-sale offer of $8.9 million. (The head was being sold by a Taiwanese collector who had bought it for $400,000 at a London auction in 1989.) Ho then donated it to — what else? — the Poly Museum, which also holds the fifth head, a pig that Ho purchased five years ago from a New York collector and donated to the museum.

As objects that presumably left China long before the 20th century rise of national property laws, the heads fall into that category of loot not protected by international agreements. The Chinese approached Christie’s privately about buying the heads but balked at the asking price, about $32 million. But that was the number being asked before the markets started crumbling. No doubt the benefit of the Saint Laurent provenance will help support prices at the Paris sale. All the same, February is several months away and no one expects the world economy to be much improved by then. And publicity about the Chinese desire for the pieces might discourage private bidders. When those heads go on the block, I would count on representatives of the Poly Group — and maybe Mr. Ho — to be in the audience.