A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
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
"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
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.