The Musée Guimet in Paris
The French Ministry of Culture and Communication has secretly organised the restitution to China of a collection of solid gold objects dating back almost 2,000 years, on the grounds that they had been looted from Gansu province. The operation was planned as a noble gesture, but haste and confusion have undone these best-laid plans, leaving red faces at the ministry, irritation in the museum community and potential donors perhaps rethinking their plans. The treasure in question had been housed in the Guimet museum, thanks to a donation by the entrepreneur and collector François Pinault.
Curators are now worried that diplomacy has ridden roughshod over the law; the restitution procedure was launched in March 2014 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of French-Chinese diplomatic relations and the ministry rushed to finalise it before a scheduled visit to Beijing by the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius. The government justifies the return by citing evidence of the rarity of such pure gold items and its determination to counter illicit trafficking, under the terms of the Unesco Convention of 1970. Ironically, the ratification of this convention was decided in 1995 by the then president Jacques Chirac, who was instrumental in introducing the gold pieces into the Guimet in the first place.
One of the four Qin pieces donated by François Pinault
In 1994, at the biennial of antique dealers in Paris, Christian Deydier displayed 60 gold objects lent by the Belgian collector Guy Ullens, who had bought them from a dealer in Taiwan, Wang Juichin. Deydier, in turn, bought another lot from the Taiwanese dealer. In 1999, he donated 28 small engraved gold plates to the Guimet, the national museum dedicated to Asia. Urged on by the late Jean-François Jarrige, who led Guimet for 22 years, Chirac asked his friend Pinault to acquire the crowning piece in the lot for the museum: four gold heads of birds of prey, 46cm high and each weighing 880g. The businessman purchased them from Deydier for €1m and then donated them to the museum.
In 2006, Le Canard Enchaîné, a satirical weekly, reported on rumours that China intended to request the return of the objects, claiming that they came from a site that had been looted. Jarrige dismissed the report as “absurd”. China denied the story, attributing the rumour to a clumsy provincial official. The discovery of the treasure had been widely discussed as early as 1993, when a leading Chinese antiques expert published an article about it. There was no reaction from the Chinese authorities and an investigation by the French police was subsequently discontinued.
But in 2013, the case was “reopened” by Sophie Makariou, the new director of the Guimet, as noted in a report by an official commission of experts, stamped “highly confidential”. Two months after her appointment, Makariou made contact with the Chinese embassy before travelling to Beijing. It emerged that a letter had been sent to Guimet in 2010 from a director of China’s archaeological heritage, Duan Yong, pleading for the return of the pieces. He referred to a police investigation “into goods stolen from the Qin dukes of Dabaozi mountain”. While not a formal claim, the letter was, however, “not transmitted to the ministry” by a former director and remained “unanswered”, according to the report.
The Chinese side now evokes illicit excavations, involving thousands of farmers on 140 sites from the Western state of the Qins who founded the first imperial dynasty (221-207BC). A total of 1,100 objects were allegedly seized, with others given to local museums, and 150 arrests were made between 1993 and 1996. However, the report carefully avoids mentioning the role of the army at the time and the change of national policy since.
Last year, the French and Chinese agreed to conduct a comparative analysis of the works in Guimet and others recovered by the Chinese authorities. Examined in the national museums’ laboratory in the Louvre, the pieces revealed a “high gold content” (93% on average), similar to that of a group of plaques studied in Beijing. “One cannot but be struck by the similarities,” concluded the study, which found that the technology used was the same, as were the surface finishes. Last October, the board recommended “the return of the items”, adding that “their illicit origin seems now clearly established”. At the same time, it expressed surprise over the long silence of the Chinese, and exempted the museum and the donors who “obviously would not have undertaken their project if there had been the least hint of illicit traffic”.
Pinault agreed to the restitution, which is when Fleur Pellerin, the French culture minister, tripped up. Under French law, public collections are inalienable property; donations especially are “irrevocable” and the status of the work offered can only be changed by a parliamentary vote, as was the case when France gave back 20 Maori heads in 2012 to New Zealand. In the case of the Guimet works, the government was afraid that the process would take too long and irritate the Chinese. The national museum service tried to solve the dilemma by asking Pinault and Deydier to “retroactively annul” their donation. The items thus are “deemed as never having belonged to the Guimet” and were returned to the donors who, in turn, agreed to keep the deal confidential and “offer” their works to China “within 30 days”.
Thus, on 14 April, Pinault discreetly deposited his €1m gift to France at the Chinese embassy in Paris, reminding the ambassador that, in 2013, he gave to China two bronze heads of the fountain of the imperial Summer Palace, looted in the 19th century. However, unhappy with the behaviour of the ministry, Deydier decided to go public. He plans to have his own handover ceremony in Beijing on 15 May during the French foreign minister’s visit, guaranteeing headlines for himself and stealing the show from the French government. by VINCENT NOCE