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China Demands Art Auction Be Cancelled
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China Demands Art Auction Be Cancelled

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China Demands Art Auction Be Cancelled

China Demands Art Auction Be Cancelled
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The private art collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent went on sale this week in Paris. While generating record sales, the three-day event also is generating controversy. The collection contains two pieces of Chinese art that the Chinese government says were illegally plundered around 1860.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The art collection of an iconic fashion designer went on sale this week in Paris. Works owned by the Late Yves Saint Laurent were commanding record prices and some international controversy. The Chinese government says two of the pieces were plundered 150 years ago and wants them back. But the episode hasn't dampened the public's enthusiasm for the designer and his passion for art. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from Paris.

Unidentified Man (Auctioneer): (French language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Under the glass cupola of Paris's 19th century Grand Palais Exhibition Hall, Yves Saint Laurent's entire 700 piece art collection has gone on the auction block this week.

Unidentified Man (Auctioneer): (French language spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

BEARDSLEY: One old master portrait rakes in eight million Euros. Auction house Christie's has estimated that the three day sale will be the most valuable in history. Yves Saint Laurent died last year at the age of 71. The sale was organized by his business and real life partner, Pierre Berge. The proceeds will benefit their cultural foundation. Judd Tully, editor of Art and Auction Magazine, says the collection is truly unique.

Mr. JUDD TULLY (Editor, Art and Auction Magazine): These two men, Pierre Berge and Yves Saint Laurent, put together this mind boggling collection over maybe four decades. I mean this isn't just paintings on the wall - it's furniture, it's design, it's tapestries. They had a kind of hunger to acquire what they thought were very great things.

BEARDSLEY: Two of the pieces Saint Laurent and Berge acquired, the head of a rat and a rabbit, came from a fountain at the Chinese Emperor's summer palace outside Beijing. The Chinese government says the heads were plundered by the British and French during the second Opium War in 1860. It has formally demanded that they be returned and that the auction be halted.

Pierre Berge admits the heads were pillaged 150 years ago, like many works of art now in European museums. He told an audience he would only be ready to give them back if China met certain conditions.

Mr. PIERRE BERGE (Artist): I am absolutely ready to give myself to China, my two sculpture. The only thing I ask to Chinese people, to the Chinese government, is to adopt the human rights, to give liberty to Tibet people and to welcome the Dalai Lama. That's all.

(Soundbite of applause)

BEARDSLEY: China is in an uproar over the auction. The Chinese government called Berge's statement political blackmail and says the sale breaks international conventions and hurts national sentiment. Despite the contra taunt, the rat and the rabbit, estimated at $13 to $19 million a piece, are set to go on sale tonight. Politics aside, buyers from across the world have come this week to bid for a piece of the collection. Even in times of economic crisis, Belgian businessman Thomas Laisen(ph) said he was willing to pay 100,000 Euros for a portrait painted in his hometown by Flemish artist Cornelius De Vos.

Mr. THOMAS LAISEN (Belgium businessman): I will hang it in my home Antwerp so it will return, after 400 years, to the city where it was painted there. I feel art is still a good investment. It's held up well.

BEARDSLEY: But it's not just the well-healed and connoisseurs who have turned out to appreciate Saint Laurent's taste in art. Thirty thousand people, regular Persians and tourists, lined up to see the collection display this weekend. Ruth Gorland(ph), visiting from Washington, D.C., explained why she waited three hours in the cold.

Ms. RUTH GORLAND: It's 'cause I feel his collection is incredible and look what's happened here. Everybody's coming to see it. He was a brilliant man. He's an icon.

BEARDSLEY: The fashion icon's collection has already brought in $385 million and broken five auction records with one more night to go.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

(Soundbite of music)

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