PARIS (AFP) — A dispute with China over cultural relics acquired by Yves Saint Laurent took a political twist Friday when the late designer's partner offered to trade them against human rights.
China is demanding the return of two imperial bronzes that are part of a prized art collection assembled by Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, and which Berge is putting on the block February 23-25 in what has been called the "sale of the century."
"I'm not about to give the Chinese presents, contrary to what they think," said Berge, a businessman, patron of the arts and longtime rights campaigner.
"I am ready to give these Chinese heads to China if they are ready to recognise human rights," he told French radio.
The fate of the rat's head and rabbit's head, worth up to 10 million euros (12.6 million dollars) apiece, will be examined just hours before the auction kicks off on Monday by a Paris judge.
The Monday 0930 GMT ruling follows a plea from a group demanding the two bronzes be withdrawn from the 732 works offered for sale at a giant auction expected to fetch up to 300 million euros (392 million dollars).
"We want the sale cancelled or delayed to give China the time to find a solution with France," Bernard Gomez, who heads the Association to Protect Chinese Art in Europe (Apace), told AFP.
A group of Chinese lawyers have also launched a legal bid from Beijing to stop the auction.
Christie's has consistently argued that there are no legal grounds to bar the sale of the two rare pieces.
The 18th century Qing dynasty bronzes are believed to be part of a collection of 12 inspired by the Chinese zodiac and to have been looted by British and French troops from the imperial Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing nearly 150 years ago.
"Auctioning cultural objects looted in war time not only offends the Chinese people and undermines their cultural rights but also violates relevant international conventions," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
Questioned over the row, Berge said he and Saint Laurent had acquired the bronze heads legally through an established Paris antique dealer.
"These Chinese bronzes were looted 150 years ago in China in the same way as were the Parthenon frescoes in Athens that are now in the British Museum, along with many other looted pieces in museums worldwide," Berge said.
"There is legislation and jurisprudence on this matter," added the 78-year-old, who in 1989 financed a pro-democracy shelter in Paris to help dissidents and students following the Tiananmen protests.
After Saint Laurent's death last June aged 71, Berge opted to part with what is viewed as one the world's great private art collections, amassed over half a century by the pair.
It includes works by Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse as well as old masters, Art Deco pieces, Venetian enamels and the antique bronzes. The auction is being held at the Grand Palais in Paris before a crowd of 1,200 people.
Proceeds are to go to a Berge/Saint Laurent Foundation honouring the designer's work and to a fund for scientific research and the fight against AIDS.
Christie's told AFP on Friday that there were no legal obstacles to the sale of the Chinese cultural relics, due to take place Wednesday, the last day of the auction.
"These relics belong to Mr Berge and they have been in free circulation for many years," Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie's America's, told AFP.
"We understand that there are sensitivities in China that have been aroused by the sale of these objects," he said. "Our advice is that there is no legal restriction on them being bought or sold."
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