BEIJING — Two bronze animal heads that were looted from Beijing more than a century ago sold for $35.9 million at auction in Paris on Feb. 25, adding another chapter to an eight-year saga that has left many observers bewildered.

The items were part of a high-profile auction — dubbed the “sale of the century” — featuring artwork and other items in the collection of the late Yves Saint Laurent, a French fashion icon, and his partner Pierre Berge.

The sale of the heads — a rabbit and a rat — appears to have set a new record for Qing dynasty art. More noteworthy, though, is the furor surrounding their sale, which included an unsuccessful legal action against the auction by 90 Chinese lawyers, an inflammatory response from Berge concerning the Dalai Lama, and an official threat from the Chinese government against auction house Christie’s alleging it “harmed the cultural rights and national feelings of the Chinese people."

Even chronically amiable kung fu star Jackie Chan has weighed in, calling the sale “shameful” and vowing to make a movie about the recovery of lost Chinese treasures.

Why so much fuss over a pair of items not even highly valued as examples of Qing art, much less admired in the art world in general? 

The answer, according to the Chinese government, is history.

The two heads are part of a set of 12 — based on the Chinese zodiac — forged in the late 1750s. They were originally mounted on human figures as part of an elaborate fountain installed in Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan, or Old Summer Palace. The heads were stolen in 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War, when British and French troops ransacked the city in revenge for the arrest and execution of their envoys by Chinese officials.

Since the first heads went up for sale, at an auction in Hong Kong in 2000, they have been widely seen in China as emblems of various foreigner-imposed “national humiliations” the country suffered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“When I was little, I went to Yuanmingyuan,” Liu Yang, the lawyer who led the lawsuit against the most recent auction, told Chinese media earlier this week. “When I saw those shattered artifacts, I crawled up on them and cried.”

Authorities in Beijing argue that the items rightfully belong to the Chinese people, and they see the profits made from the sale of these items as an added humiliation.

Others, however, are skeptical of the humiliation story.

“When the first heads came on the market in 2000, the (Communist) Party was put in the position of having to deal with a concrete modern-day issue relevant to its fictional narrative of the events of 1860,” said veteran China travel writer Peter Neville-Hadley, who reported on the first auction while an editor at a Beijing-based expatriate weekly.

As Neville-Hadley points out, the Chinese government’s official version of the Second Opium War fails to mention several important facts — in particular that the French and British invaded Beijing, and took the bronze heads, only after the Qing government violated the terms of a treaty it had signed with both countries.

While such a revelation might seem minor to some, it is clearly a sensitive one for Beijing.

In 2006, propaganda authorities shut down Freezing Point, a widely respected magazine, after it ran an essay by historian Yuan Weishi called “Modernization and History Textbooks,” in which Yuan explored omissions in official histories of the Second Opium War and suggested the sacking of the Old Summer Palace might have been avoided had Chinese officials acted more reasonably.

To Neville-Hadley — himself the subject of personal attacks in the state-run press for his coverage of the first bronze head auction — the outcry over the return of the heads is a cynical ploy by the government to assert its own version of history.

“The claim that the feelings of all Chinese have been hurt is inherently fatuous,” he said. “It's the Chinese government making the fuss, not the Chinese people.”

Neville-Hadley is not alone in his interpretation.

“This is a way for the government to protect itself, to make itself look strong,” said an editor at a prominent Chinese news weekly, who gave only his surname, Li.

According to Li, the government has seized on the auction to as a way to distract people from other issues, in particular the financial crisis and a looming job shortfall for as many as half of the 6 million students expected to graduate from college this year.

“China is an angry place and people need a way to vent that anger,” he said. “With the heads, at least they’re venting it at France, not the government.”

If that’s the case, Chinese people aren’t necessarily taking the bait.

English-language blog china SMACK, in a review of the controversy, noted a survey on Chinese web portal Sina showing nearly 90 percent support for the lawsuit to stop sales of the heads in Paris. But the blog also translated comments from various Chinese web forums in which sentiment varied widely.

“Go to hell, evil French creatures!” wrote one poster, while another suggested that “to give (the heads) up is also a kind of dignity.”

Perhaps the most pointed comment came from a poster in the popular Tianya forum: “What Chinese people love is this, being elated when our nationality is brutalized … If there is an insult to the Chinese, we climax. If there is no insult to the Chinese, we will create an insult to the Chinese to climax. "

There’s evidence that even some members of China’s propaganda apparatus may have doubts about the government’s pursuit of the heads.

“Who says the 12 bronze heads looted from Yuanmingyuan are national treasures?” asked one commentary that appeared on the website of the official government mouthpiece People’s Daily a few days before the auction. Writing under the pseudonym Can Kuiya (“Ashamed!”), the commentary’s author called attention to the fact the heads were designed by Italian missionaries, not Chinese craftsmen, and takes the government to task for inflating their value with its protests. 

The previous head to be put up for sale, a horse in 2007, was purchased by Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho for $8.9 million after several days of protest from Beijing. Ho later donated the head to the government.

The heads in the Paris auction were purchased anonymously by phone, leaving open the possibility the same may happen this time around.

Liu Wei, spokeswoman for Beijing’s Poly Art Museum, which owns four of the five heads recovered so far, says no one in her organization knows who might have been behind the purchase. “We’re waiting to find out,” she said. “Just like everyone else.”
 

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