China bid to regain looted relics a tough task: experts - Feature

BEIJING, November  1, 2010 (AFP) - China's call on museums and antique collectors around the world to return relics looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 150 years ago is unlikely to yield any significant results, experts say.

The Army Museum in Paris and London's Victoria and Albert Museum are just two of the institutions that possess items taken from the former resort for Qing dynasty emperors -- and are not about to give them up easily, they say.

"As Western institutions and individuals are unlikely to respond, this call obviously targets domestic consumption, which the Chinese leaders hope will galvanise the nation," said John Wong, history professor at the University of Sydney.

The Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, was pillaged by a joint British and French military expedition during the second Opium War on October 18-19, 1860.

The event is seen as a national humiliation at the hands of Western armies, and every anniversary of the destruction of this "wonder of the world" -- as French writer Victor Hugo described it -- gives rise to a nationalistic push.

Beijing estimates that at least 1.5 million relics were pillaged by the armies, but according to historian Bernard Brizay, author of a book on the destruction of the palace, this figure is exaggerated.

He told AFP the raid was not as clear-cut as the official version indicates, saying: "There is what was stolen from the Yuanmingyuan and there is what was sold by Beijing antique dealers."

In other words, relics stolen from the resort -- bits of porcelain, enamel, sculptures, furniture, silk paintings -- were legally sold long after the raid.

Two such items are bronze fountainheads that belonged to late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, which were auctioned for about 20 million dollars each last year in a move that angered China.

The Yuanmingyuan park authority last week called for a boycott of auctions featuring looted relics, but experts say such a plea would fall on deaf ears.

"Every month in London, Hong Kong, Paris or New York, items from the Yuanmingyuan are sold. And when people know that they come from the Yuanmingyuan, prices increase," Brizay said.

The expert added that the world's top museums would never respond to Beijing's call, noting: "Items that are in museums will never be returned to China."

Museums are "reluctant" to indicate where their collections come from, even if they sometimes have "identifiable characteristics," he added.

Many masterpieces exhibited at a museum of Chinese artefacts outside Paris come from the Old Summer Palace, as does a priceless album displaying 40 views of the Yuanmingyuan that is kept at the National Library of France.

In October 2009, China announced it would send a team abroad tasked with recording the number of looted relics.

Yuanmingyuan director Chen Mingjie said at the time that the relics were housed "in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries", singling out the British Museum. But a year later, a detailed inventory has not materialised.

The Guimet Museum of Asian art in France has not received any request to account for its holdings, according to chief curator Jean-Paul Desroches.

Desroches said he could not say for sure that the museum did not have any items from the Yuanmingyuan, but added that if it did, it would be "practically nothing."

France last week called for a "calm study" into the "tragedy" of the Old Summer Palace, highlighting that any requests for the return of works of art should go through the UN cultural body UNESCO.