The world may still be reeling from a tough economic recession, but lack of cash flow has not affected the bids at the Yves Saint Laurent house auction. From the abstract Picassos that graced his walls, to the sculptures that lined his mahogany tables, the artwork that invigorated Yves Saint Laurent was on display in Paris for a week before being auctioned off by the eminent New York auction house, Christie’s.
The 733 piece art collection between Saint Laurent and his former partner, Pierre Berge amassed a grand total of just over $483 million dollars according to Christie’s. The fashion mogul had passed away two years ago at 71 years of age from cancer. Berge and Saint Laurent commenced their journey as patrons of art in the 1950’s when Saint Laurent was an up and coming designer at Christian Dior. When asked why Berge was auctioning off the valuable collection, he said that without Saint Laurent, “it had lost a greater part of its significance.” Nevertheless, there were some significant controversies and record-high bids such as when a sculpture by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi was bought for 29 million Euros (£25m), well above the expected price.
However, the auction also opened up old wounds with the Chinese government. Cai Mingchao, who works for China’s National Treasures Fund, placed the winning bid for two 18th Century bronze statues by phone. Later, Mingchao publicly announced that he cannot pay – or would not pay – for the two statues since he feels that they rightfully belong to China. Mingchao views his bid as a patriotic act, saying “I did this on behalf of the Chinese people.”
It is not clear whether Mingchao bid as an individual, or on behalf of the government of China. China attempted to launch a legal halt on the sale of the relics, looted 150 years ago from Beijing’s Yuan Ming Yuan – the Garden of Perfect Brightness, or Summer Palace of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) emperors. China was unsuccessful and Christie’s refused to bow into the pressure, leaving the bronze statues to be auctioned off as planned.
The debate received immense public attention around the world. Many suggested that the government of China should step in and open their chequebooks as they had in the past with five other bronze statues. Others commented on the Chinese government and their policies. Berge countered China, saying he would give the statues to China if Beijing would “observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama.”
These are questions that will continue to be asked as the world moves into reconciliation and transition. China is not the only country to be affected by the situation of looted, or stolen traditional property. Who does the material belong to? If the French courts decide to sue Mingchao, how will they force a Chinese citizen to appear in the French courts for trial? It’s an issue that will always be under fire.