A China-backed group has made a last-ditch attempt to block the Paris sale next week of two bronze sculptures looted from China in the 19th century.
APACE, the Association to Protect Chinese Art in Europe, has asked the French court to suspend the sale of two bronze figures slated for the auction of artwork and artifacts collected by late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé.
While the group is not seeking to block the entire sale — described by some as the auction of the century because of the two men's vast and valuable offerings — it is asking specifically for the judge to block the sale of the rabbit and rat head sculptures looted from the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860.
The Paris judge will rule on Monday morning, just hours before the auction begins its first day.
"China does not want to buy them. China wants restitution," according to APACE president Bernard Gomez.
Meanwhile, Bergé has told French media that he will not simply turn over the pieces to China.
"I do not have the intention of giving these heads to the Chinese government. Rather, I would recommend that the Chinese, instead of getting worked up over the heads, worry about human rights," the 78-year-old businessman and art collector told i-Tele news.
"I am ready to give these Chinese heads to China if they are ready to recognize human rights," he added in an interview with French radio.
Christie's experts have estimated that the rat and rabbit head bronzes could fetch up to $15 million Cdn each.
Removed from zodiac-inspired fountain
The sculptures originally hail from a Chinese zodiac-inspired water fountain at Beijing's former Imperial Summer Palace, which was sacked by European troops in October 1860.
Some of the pieces — including sculptures representing the boar and the horse — have turned up at various auctions, with Chinese collectors buying and donating them to the Poly Art Museum in Beijing. Still others were purchased by the Chinese government itself from auctions.
Christie's has said repeatedly that it does not see any legal reason to hold up or postpone the auction.
More than 700 works are being sold as part of the three-day Saint Laurent-Bergé sale beginning Monday at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Overall, the auction will also try to sell extremely valuable furniture, drawings, artifacts and artworks, by the likes of Picasso, Goya, Matisse and Mondrian, that the two men amassed over four decades. Proceeds will go to an AIDS research foundation Bergé has set up.