No Legal Basis For The Return Of The Chinese Bronzes

It is not surprising to find drugs and fashion in bed together and last week was no different.  Opium, a rat, a rabbit, and a  fashion house took center stage at the “Sale of the Century”.  Even those whose art budget leans towards items painted on velvet may have heard about the sale of what has been called one of themost important art collections in private hands.  Items owned by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, received enormous attention even before they hit the auction block in Paris.

Among the items that received unusual attention were two bronze sculptures carved by a Jesuit priest that had been a part of a water-clock at a Chinese summer palace.  China formally protested the sculptures’ sale and APCA (the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe) asked a Paris court to block the sale.  The court ruled that APCA did not have standing and ordered it to pay $1,274 US to both Mr. Berge and the auction house, Christie’s.

The decision seems to have sparked strong emotion from the Chinese because the two statutes were looted by the British and French from the the Emperor’s Summer Palace during the Second Opium War in 1860.  Putting aside the moral debate however, what struck me was the insistence that the Chinese government has strong legal claims to the bronzes.

Even if the Chinese government instead of APCA had filed the lawsuit, it is difficult to see how the case was anything more than an attempt to garner public attention.  The Shanghai Daily mentions that the UNESCO Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects would not apply a statute of limitations in this case — suggesting that other provisions would obligate the bronzes’ return to China.  If that is the argument, then it is a silly one.  The UNESCO Convention does not apply at all as it  would only apply to objects taken or exported after the convention became effective for the respective parties.  I think it is safe to say that nobody needs to run to the appendix of the the convention to see if China and France signed the UNESCO Convention (or any other convention) during the Qing Dynasty.  The first countries to sign the UNESCO Convention signed it in 1970 and everyone agrees that the bronzes were taken in 1860 — long before there was any notion of a convention.  The same is true for those who point to the Uniroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects which was signed in 1995.

I know enough that I would be lost if opposing counsel started talking about the Napoleonic Code, but courts in most states in the U.S. would probably throw the case out too.  The sculptures were not exactly hidden away in the attic of a recluse.  Rather, it was well known that Laurent  and Berge owned the sculptures and only when the bronzes came up for auction was any effort made to demand their return.  Suffice to say, that most courts would likely hold that the statute of limitations would have run under state law in that if the Chinese government had exercised due diligence in searching for the sculptures, it would have had no trouble learning of their whereabouts.

It appeared that the bidders were not concerned about the legal ramifications as the sculptures sold for about $40 million US — multiples of the initial estimates, but we learned on Monday that  thewinning bidder had no intentions of paying.  His actions are discussed in a separate blog posting.  Is the combination of a lawsuit and fake bidding an effort to scare real bidders?

Perhaps the weak legal arguments or simple taunting prompted Mr. Berge to offer to return the sculptures if China “only” agreed to abide by human rights and allow the Dali Lama to return to Tibet.

What do you think? Did China have stronger legal arguments or was it resigned to making a moral appeal that at the end of the day, the items were admittedly looted?

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About Dave Rein

Dave Rein focuses on and will continue to focus on copyright, trademark and patent litigation until the National Geographic adds him to its staff of photographers. In addition to counseling and litigating on behalf of the firm’s clients, he also helps clients through the Kansas City Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts where he also serves as a board member. Prior to representing clients, Dave clerked for a federal district court judge who kindly provided invaluable advice and mentorship
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