BEIJING -- China Tuesday criticized the sale of two looted bronze sculptures at Christie's, saying it broke international conventions and seriously hurt the cultural rights and interests as well as their national sentiment.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu made the remarks at a regular press conference as answering relevant questions.
The two bronze head sculptures, one rabbit and one rat, formed part of the zodiacal clepsydra that decorated the Calm Sea Pavilion in the Old Summer Palace of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). They were stolen when the palace was burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
So far, five of the 12 bronze animal heads have been returned to China. The whereabouts of five others are unknown.
A team of 81 Chinese lawyers wrote to Christie's auction house in an effort to stop the sale of the bronzes. The team also attempted to get a French court to halt the case, but the court ruled against the bid on Monday.
"It is the international community's consensus as well as the basic cultural rights and interest of the people of the original owning country of cultural assets to protect cultural relics and return them to the original owning countries," Ma said.
He added that the Chinese government has attached great importance to the retrieval of looted cultural items. He added that it has joined international conventions, signed bilateral agreements with many countries and actively participates in international cooperation in this regard.
"The western powers have plundered a great amount of Chinese cultural relics in wars, including many precious items robbed from the Old Summer Palace. All these should be returned to China," Ma said.
China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) has voiced strong opposition with Christie's and demanded that the auction be stopped.
The Administration would not buy the sculptures, because buying them means China acknowledges they were taken legally.
As for the report that the current owner of the bronzes Pierre Berge said he would return the two heads of the sculpture so long as China gives liberty to the Tibet people and welcomes the Dalai Lama, the spokesman said it is absurd to infringe on the Chinese people's fundamental cultural rights under the banner of human rights.
He urged those involved to understand and respect the just demands of the Chinese people and help return Chinese cultural properties back to China.
The auction house is to stage the auction in Paris at 7 a.m. on February 25 (local time). The two items are expected to fetch between 16 million and 20 million euros (US$20.8 million to 26 million).