A team of 81 Chinese lawyers has written to auction giant Christie's in an effort to stop the sale of two bronze relics, which were looted from an old Beijing palace.
The two artifacts, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bronze rabbit and rat head sculptures, will be auctioned by Christie's in Paris from Feb. 23 to 25. They were expected to fetch 8 million to 10 million euros (about 10.4 to 13 million U.S. dollars) each.
"We've sent a letter to Christie's representative in China through e-mail," Liu Yang, one of the lawyers working on the case, told Xinhua. The letter will also be sent to Christie's headquarters by a liaison person in France, he said.
Liu said they hope Christie's could give a second thought to the sale of the Chinese relics, withdraw them from the auction and persuade the owner of the stolen artifacts to return them to China.
The two bronze head sculptures were housed in Yuanmingyuan, Beijing's Imperial Summer Palace. They were stolen when the palace was burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
The rabbit and rat head sculptures currently belong to the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and were put up for auction by Pierre Berge.
Liu said his team had also sent a letter to Pierre Berge, asking him not to auction the relics and return them to China.
He said his team would sue Pierre Berge if there were no "positive feedback from them (Pierre Berge and Christie's) within a reasonable period". Christie's would be involved in the lawsuit as the third party. But he declined to say how long his team would wait for the "positive feedback".
Christie's Public Relations Officer in China Chen Yan confirmed that the company's Beijing office had received the letter.
Chen said the sale of all the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge collection will go for charity. All the articles, including the two Yuanmingyuan bronze sculptures, have legal documents showing that they are possessed by their keepers legally, she said.
"Therefore, the auction will go on as scheduled," she said in an e-mail to Xinhua.
Chen said Christie's understands that the auction of the two bronze sculptures is "sensitive" in China and hopes to work with other parties to find a "satisfactory" solution.
China and France signed the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which stipulated that any cultural object looted or lost because of reasons of war should be returned without any limitation of time span.
Liu refuted Chen's comments and said Pierre Berge does not have legal ownership of the two sculptures.
He said according to the principle of the Civil Law System, the right of the owner of an article will not exceed the right of the article's previous owner.
"The fact that the sculptures were stolen from China and illegally possessed by some people previously, means that the ownership of their current keeper is not legal," he said.
Christie's carried a detailed introduction of the two bronzes on its website, saying that the two formed part of the zodiacal clepsydra that decorated the Calm Sea Pavilion in the Old Summer Palace of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795).
"Constructed between 1756 and 1759 under the supervision of the famous Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione, the heads are characterized by a distinctly western style," Mathilde Courteault, head of the company's Asian Department, was quoted by the website as saying.
"The clepsydra comprised the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac each of which, in their turn, spouted water to mark the various hours of the day with the exception of midday, when this elaborate hydraulic mechanism triggered all of the animals simultaneously," Courteault said.
Early reports said Liu and his team had had trouble finding an appropriate plaintiff to sue Christie and channeling enough money for the lawsuit.
But Liu said those problems were gone as the Global Aixinjueluo Family Clan, a civil society registered in Hong Kong, has agreed to be the plaintiff. Aixinjueluo is the clan name of the emperors of the Qing Dynasty.
A company in Shenzhen in south China agreed to donate 400,000 yuan (58,823 U.S. dollars) to the lawyers to cover the legal cost, Liu said. He declined to release the company's name and said his team still need to sign an agreement with the company before they get the money.
The action of the lawyers has gained support from many Chinese netizens, who are furious about the auction. Many netizens pasted comments on the forum of sina.com, saying that "looted relics must be returned to China for free."
China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) said earlier that Christie's auction of the two stolen relics is unacceptable and China will not try to buy them back.
Song Xinchao, director of the museum department with the SACH, said the best way to deal with the issue was to ignore it, because some business people might use the patriotism of the Chinese people to raise bidding prices for monetary gain.
The American auction house Sotheby's tried to put a bronze horse head for auction in 2007. But Macao billionaire Stanley Ho bought the relic at a price of 69.1 million Hong Kong dollars (about 9 million U.S. dollars) before the auction and donated it to the Chinese government.
China's Special Fund for Rescuing Lost Cultural Relics from overseas had negotiated with the keeper of the two relics in 2003 and 2004, but were deterred by an asking price of 10 million U.S. dollars for each artifact.
So far, five of the 12 bronze animal heads have already been returned to China, while the whereabouts of five others is unknown.