China / Society

Looted relics need respect, regulation

(Xinhua) Updated: 2012-11-08 22:33

BEIJING - Commercial activities centering on relics looted from China by imperialist invaders in previous centuries are always a touchy topic for many Chinese, who believe the current owners should pay more respect to the precious items.

The recent attempt by British auctioneer Bonhams to sell antiques looted from the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, by British and French military forces in 1860 was the latest auction overseas that incited fury among Chinese.

Objections from China made the owner of the two jade carvings, which were originally planned for auction on Thursday, withdraw them from Bonhams, citing reasons to "avoid offence."

But in 2009, two bronze heads of the rat and rabbit, parts of a Zodiac fountain once situated in Yuanmingyuan, were auctioned by Christie's in Paris as the estate of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

The items were finally sold for $19 million each to a phone-in buyer. The man, later turned out to be Chinese collector Cai Mingchao but he refused to pay, saying that he placed the bids out of patriotism.

Although the de facto ownership of these antiques are legal in the owners' countries, ethically speaking, unthoughtful disposition of the items hurts the feelings of their original owners and should not be encouraged.

While some of the current owners can be relied on to handle the matters appropriately, more explicit regulation is needed to guarantee that the antiques are taken proper care of.

International pacts on the ownership of relics illegally secured from other countries during times of war state that they should be returned to the original owners, but it requires both of the concerned countries to endorse the pacts.

States like the United Kingdom, a major host of such relics, have yet to become participants of the pacts, making it difficult for China to retrieve lost items.

This is exactly where international bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization can play a bigger role. It can help countries achieve a common understanding because it is an issue of pain not just for China, but other ancient civilizations that have suffered ransacking at times of foreign invasion.

One of the major methods China and other countries, like Egypt, have adopted to take back antiques is bidding at auctions. This happened to five of the Yuanmingyuan Zodiac fountain bronze heads, but given their high prices, this is unsustainable and more importantly, unfair.

Buying back the relics would give an impression that the previous possession was righteous, but in fact, it was not. Instead, current owners of the relics should be encouraged to donate them to the rightful owners or in exchange for something else.

Meanwhile, organizations in different countries that are devoted to retrieve lost relics should team up with each other to share their experiences in reclaiming items and keep up the spirit to carry on with the cause and exert wider influences.

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