Where the Heads Roll
China has launched an angry legal bid to stop the sale of two antique bronze animal heads in a Paris auction of items collected by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. China says the heads were looted 150 years ago from the Old Summer Palace in Peking. They also say that putting these lots on auction has offended the Chinese people.
Offended? Or should we be grateful to the French for their care and appreciation of these artworks, cared for as they were for so many years by a world-class artist and fashion designer?
According to official figures, from November 9 to December 7, 1967, Tan Hou-lan, the head of a Beijing Red Guard brigade and a protégé of Chairman Mao, oversaw the wholesale destruction of more than 6,000 antique art pieces, mostly porcelain from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but they also burned more than 2,700 classical Chinese books and 900 classical water ink paintings, some of which dated back to more than 1,000 years ago in the Song Dynasty, and smashed more than 1,000 tablets. A marvelous accomplishment in just a month, and only the tip of the iceberg considering the nationwide campaign of violence tens of millions of Red Guards unleashed all over China over two years.
Schoolchildren in Germany are nowadays taught about the crimes of Hitler. Meanwhile, Mao’s embalmed body is still enshrined in a Beijing mausoleum. Wouldn’t it be in the interest of mankind if more Chinese antiques remain safely outside of the Middle Kingdom? At least as long as there is no guarantee that the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution will never happen again. Westerners will happily welcome a few more art pieces like these bronze rabbit and rat heads (certainly much more so than the few snakeheads who lead yet more illegal Chinese immigrants into Europe or America).
Artworks like these will enrich our little global village if they are safely preserved in institutions such as the British Museum for an indefinite period of time, or at least until China is deemed mature enough to possess them again. Parents don’t buy a video game for their crying kid until he repents his misbehavior and gets higher marks at school.
In an auction hall where money counts more than nationalistic anger, higher marks could mean better prices. These heads are said to be worth more than €10 million. Would a patriotic coal mine owner from Shanxi who has just returned from a triumphant trip to the Venetian Macau offer half a billion to claim them back, perhaps together with Monet’s water lilies? Call it revenge. He could keep the heads and burn the painting in defiance of the French imperialists at the Place de la Concorde—a location known for being the site of mass hysteria during the French Revolution where they guillotined the king, the queen and tens of thousands of aristocrats in celebration of a nation’s rebirth.