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China Buys Back its Past May 11, 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

The Chinese government last week spent millions at auction buying back treasures looted from Beijing's Summer Palace by British and French troops 140 years ago. The purchase took place after the Chinese State Relics Bureau wrote letters to Sothebys and Christie's Hong Kong protesting the sales. Both houses allowed their sales to proceed and the China Poly Group Corp, a Beijing-based state-owned corporation, stepped in to win bids on three of the four contested objects--bronze animal heads that once decorated a Zodiac fountain at the Summer Palace.

The Poly Group, which until last year was owned by the People's Liberation Army and was known as an arms dealer, has more recently opened a small museum in the capital dedicated to ancient bronzes. The animal heads, which the Poly Group bought for $4 million, will soon be displayed there. The Old Summer Palace was built in the seventeenth and eighteenth century by Qing emperors, who used it as a summer retreat. The vast estate, composed of traditional buildings decorated with China's finest arts, was ransacked and burnt to the ground by colonial powers forcing China to accept the opium trade. Known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness, the Old Summer Palace and the story of of its ignominious fate is well known throughout the country and remains a sore spot today. Sothebys Hong Kong has over the past 27 years of its operation has reportedly sold other relics from the Old Summer Palace without objections from Chinese authorities.

"China's priority has been technology, not cultural heritage," says Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, a New York art historian who has chronicled the destruction of antiquities during the Three Gorges Dam project along the Yangtze River. "Too many antiquties have left, and there's been too much corruption. Now it's coming back to slap them [the government] in the face."

He Shuzhong of CulturalHeritageWatch, a mainland China-based lobbying group that reported on the auction, says China's experience buying back national treasures presents "a very, very good chance to improve the laws" preventing the export of antiquities from the mainland. Childs-Johnson likewise predicts changes that will tighten Chinese antiquities legislation. If such changes are not forthcoming, further purchases at auction may be expected.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America