China to Yves Saint Laurent: We Smell a Rat

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And also a rabbit. On Feb 23, Christie’s International in Paris will begin a much-hyped three-day auction of furniture and art from the various homes of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge. To give potential American bidders a close look, last year Christie’s shipped some of the choicer items for a brief display at its New York showroom. I went over to see them because I was particularly curious about a pair of bronze animal heads, a rabbit and a rat, that were once part of the famous zodiac fountain clock at Beijing’s imperial Summer Palace. In 1860 the palace was looted and burned by French and English troops, the fountain clock destroyed and its brass animal heads, which were water spouts representing beasts in the Chinese zodiac, were scattered.

In recent years the Hong Kong billionaire Stanley Ho and the art buying arm of the People’s Liberation Army — yes, there is such a thing — have been attempting to retrieve the pieces whenever they turn up on world markets, either through purchase (that would be Ho) or what you might call sharply worded demands for repatriation (that would be the government). Now the Chinese foreign ministry is asking Saint Laurent’s estate, which is directed by Berge, to return the heads. Christie’s has replied that the heads both have a long, well documented ownership history, and of course they left China long before 1970, the year that’s increasingly accepted as a cut off for repatriation claims.

I doubt the Chinese demands will go far, but assuming his fortune wasn’t too badly eroded by the worldwide meltdown, they can always roll out their heavy weapon, Stanley Ho.