The Ongoing Saga of the Summer Palace Bronze Heads

Rumors Abound That French Super-Retailer Carrefour May Be In Bidding

Will the Rabbit and the Rat finally return to Beijing? Image © Artworld Salon

Will the Rabbit and the Rat finally return to Beijing? Image © Artworld Salon

The Financial Times reports that the recent controversy about the sale of two bronze zodiac heads looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops in the 19th century and put on the auction block by the estate of Yves St. Laurent may be close to an end. As you may remember, the auction, held in Feburary, were sold for £14m each, but the anonymous buyer soon revealed his true identityas the New York Review of Books writes,

When the rat and rabbit were offered at the Christie’s auction of the Yves Saint Laurent collection in Paris in February, a Chinese advocacy group unsuccessfully attempted to block the sale in a French court; on February 25, an anonymous buyer made a winning bid of 31.4 million euros (about $40 million) for both. Several days later, the buyer revealed himself as Cai Mingchao, a Chinese businessman and art dealer, but announced that he had no intention of paying for them; he maintained that they should be voluntarily returned to China.

Of course, the saga was far from over at this point, and over the last few months few developments have emerged in the press about the fate of these two bronze heads. However, over the last couple of days the French paper Le Point has reported on rumors of a deal being brokered that could finally bring the affair of the bronze heads (nearly) to an end. As the FT writes,

The French weekly Le Point has reported that the French government is working on a face-saving solution: the supermarket chain Carrefour, which has invested heavily in China, could be putting together a consortium to pay for the bronzes and give them back to China as “an amicable gesture”.

Carrefour says that the report is “inaccurate” but does not say it is “untrue” and is not prepared to comment further. Christie’s also refuses to comment on the issue, except to say that “the sale has not been cancelled”, and maintains that the Yves St Laurent sale totalled £332.8m, a figure that includes the price for the bronzes.

This kind of a deal would appear to be the most mutually beneficial for all (or at least most) sides. As the FT says, it would be a “face-saving” deal, one that would take France itself out of the political equation, allow Carrefour to look like the good guy in the Chinese market — where it was widely boycotted in 2008 after the disastrous Olympic relays — and brings the heads (an enduring cause celebre) back to Beijing. However, these reports remain only rumors at this moment. It is entirely possible that the heads may be sold to the second-place bidder and stay outside of China for several more decades. We’ll have to keep a close eye on it.

One response to “The Ongoing Saga of the Summer Palace Bronze Heads

  1. Pingback: The Ongoing Saga of the Summer Palace Bronze Heads

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