chapter  9
23 Pages

The politics of art repatriation: nationalism, state legitimation, and Beijing’s looted zodiac animal heads richard kraus

At the February 25, 2009 Christie’s auction in Paris, two Chinese zodiac heads (shoushou ), the rabbit and the rat, came up for sale. They were part of the collection of the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.2 The sale arose at a time of tense relations between France and China, focused partly on Beijing’s unhappiness with French support for the Dalai Lama ( ). Chinese officials demanded the return of the zodiac heads, which it declared were Chinese “national treasures” (guobao ) looted by the British in the nineteenth century. Chinese lawyers sought to block the sale in a French court. Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner and seller of the massive art collection, further fueled the dispute by offering to give the two statues to China – in exchange for human rights reforms and Tibetan freedom. When the sale went ahead, China announced sanctions against Christie’s designed to hurt its business with Asian customers.3