China Thursday condemned Christie's auction of two looted Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bronzes, saying the sale would hurt the auction house's business development in the country.
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 sculptures, of a rat and a rabbit head, are part of an art collection from the estate of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. They were looted when Beijing's Old Summer Palace was razed by invading French and British forces in 1860.
The bronzes sold for a total of more than 31 million euros ($39.5 million), well above the estimate of 8-10 million euros each.
Christie's and Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Berge, have said the sale was lawful. The auction house went ahead with the auction despite the SACH's repeated pleas that the sale be canceled.
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.
Christie's sales on the Chinese mainland are carried out through licensing partner Forever International Auction Company Limited, an auction house in Beijing. Its sales in 2008 totaled $6.2 million, according to Christie's website. In Hong Kong, sales last year totaled $452.3 million, it said.
Christie's Thursday refused to identify the telephone bidders after the auction.
"I think our next move is to try to figure out their identities," said Li Xingfeng, one of the 81 Chinese lawyers who took part in the campaign to stop the auctions.
A group of Chinese students and ethnic Chinese in Paris protested against the sale outside the auction venue.
Some overseas Chinese in France also initiated a fundraiser Thursday to raise enough to offer a reward to anyone who can provide clues of who and where the buyer is, said Liu Yang, a lawyer who heads the campaign to get the relics back.
Liu told China Daily that they would file two new lawsuits - one in France, the other in China - against Pierre Berge and Christie's, asking them to compensate the loss of relics and apologize to Chinese people.
Xinhua, agencies contributed to the story