China and France in tug-of-war over Yves St Laurent treasures

CHINA has demanded the return of looted imperial bronzes due to be auctioned in Paris as part of the estate of the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

The sculptures of a rat's head and a rabbit's head disappeared in 1860, when French and British forces looted and then burned the former summer palace on the outskirts of Beijing at the end of the second Opium War.

Jiang Yu, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry, said yesterday that the pieces had been "stolen and taken away by intruders," and "should be returned to China".

Chinese state media have previously reported that the figures were offered to the government in a private sale for $20 million (14 million) five years ago but were turned down because the price was too high.

Yves St Laurent died last June and the figures are being auctioned, along with other works of art, by the fashion designer's lifelong friend and business partner, Pierre Berg, to raise money for HIV-Aids research.

The opium wars are seen by most Chinese as the start of a 100-year decline that saw their country dominated by western powers and Japan, a situation Chinese history books say ended only with Communist victory in the civil war in 1949.

The sacking of the summer palace by troops under the command of Lord Elgin – the son of the man who took the Elgin Marbles to Britain from the Acropolis – is seen by Beijing as a simple case of theft.

Local media said the bronzes were subject to a 1995 agreement stipulating that "any cultural object looted or lost because of reasons of war should be returned without any limitation of time span".

Ms Jiang said: "The aggressive war not only offended the Chinese people, but also this kind of action is a violation of international convention." She did not mention France by name, but said "the relevant country" should heed China's demands.

The two relics date back to the early Qing dynasty, established by invading Manchu tribesmen in 1644. They were made for the Zodiac fountain of the summer Imperial Palace. The location of the fountain's remaining five heads – a dragon, snake, sheep, cock and dog – is unknown.

The rat head sculpture is about 12in high and 16in long, while the rabbit is about 18in high and 14in long.

The two bronzes are expected to sell for as much as 10 million (9 million) each at the auction on 23-25 February.

The auction house Christie's said: "The YSL collection holds firm legal title to the heads and so we respectfully believe the auction will proceed."

The issue threatens to further strain tensions between the two countries. There have been calls in China for a boycott of French goods and China cancelled talks with the European Union in protest at talks between Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese accuse of supporting Tibetan separatism.

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