Jackie Chan, the action film star, has thrown his weight behind Beijing’s efforts to shame France over the sale of two looted Chinese sculptures that were part of the Yves Saint Laurent collection.
The bronze rat and rabbit, removed when British and French forces sacked the Old Summer Palace in 1860, were sold for €14 million (£12.5 million) each to two anonymous bidders last night, despite Chinese objections.
Mr Chan said France had behaved disgracefully in allowing the sale. “They remain looted items, no matter whom they were sold to. Whoever took it out [of China] is himself a thief,” he said . “It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today.”
The dispute underscores the challenges China faces in trying to recover numerous cultural objects stolen more than a century ago, when plunder was a given in warfare. China estimates there are more than 1 million relics outside the country, scattered among 200 museums in 47 countries.
The Chinese have in recent years intensified efforts to retrieve its relics. When official protests against similar auctions failed, state-owned companies and rich Chinese individuals stepped in to buy the pieces.
State conglomerate China Poly Group bought the Summer Palace tiger head for nearly $2 million from Sotheby's and the monkey and ox heads for $2.05 million from Christie's. The pig and horse heads were later purchased by Chinese business figures for millions of dollars and donated to China. The fates of the other five are unknown.
Christie's auction of the rat and rabbit bronzes did not break any international agreements, but China argued the relics are a part of its cultural heritage and should be returned.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) said in a statement that "Christie's obstinately went ahead with the auction going against the spirit of international conventions and common international understanding that cultural relics should be returned to their country of origin".
The SACH said the auction would have repercussions as it "harmed the cultural rights and national feeling of the Chinese people".
"This will have a serious impact on Christie's development in China," it said, adding that Christie's must bear all responsibility for the repercussions of the auction.
The statement said that China did not acknowledge "the illegal possession" of the two sculptures and "would continue to seek their return by all means in accord with international conventions and Chinese laws".
The SACH Thursday also imposed limits on what the auction house can bring into, or take out of, China.
Entry and exit administrations at all levels have been ordered to check "heritage items" that Christie's seeks to import or export. Certificates of legal ownership must be provided for all items, according to a SACH circular issued Thursday.
Entry and exit departments should immediately report to the SACH, local police and Customs offices if they find relics owned by Christie's that might have been looted or smuggled, it said.
American Chinese Collectors Association President Zhou Dezhao said the tightened checks will hurt Christie's business badly.
He said collectors can usually travel around the world with auction items as long as they provide an invoice from the auction house.
Now since certificates of legal ownership are required if the items are from Christie's, it would "definitely hurt its business in China" as Chinese antiquities account for nearly 40 percent of Christie's auction items in the world, he added .
A local Chinese auction house, C.U.AKV, told China Daily that the move not only makes it extremely difficult for Christie's to collect Chinese arts and antiquities, but also leaves Christie's far behind competitors such as Sotheby's in the Asian market.