BEIJING — China fumes over the foreign auction of its looted relics. Cambodia sputters over ancient temple pieces on sale on eBay. Egypt aches for its stolen treasures that are sitting in foreign museums, including the indescribably splendid bust of Nefertiti. Italy and Greece plead for the return of countless antiquities.
Countries with rich architectural heritages demand their patrimony back — and they are going to ever-greater lengths to get it.
Peru recently sued Yale University over thousands of Incan artifacts that were taken nearly a century ago from the mountain citadel of Machu Picchu. Italy is challenging foreign museums to prove that items in their showcases weren't obtained from dealers working with looters, tomb robbers and shady middlemen.
Still others, such as China, appeal to global opinion. Last week, Beijing demanded that Christie's auction house stop the sale of bronze rat and rabbit heads that were taken from a zodiac water clock at the emperor's Summer Palace gardens, which were ransacked by British and French troops in 1860.
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The auction went ahead, drawing a bid of about $40 million for both pieces. On Monday, an adviser to a Chinese fund for the repatriation of artifacts, Cai Mingchao, identified himself as the mystery bidder but said that he wouldn't pay, and that he'd made the bid only to disrupt the auction.
Fellow Chinese hailed him, underscoring how highly charged the political controversy is over such lost antiquities, which most Chinese view as a humiliating symbolic reminder of China's subjugation by foreign powers more than a century ago.
Museum curators, auction houses and even city fathers are on the defensive.
After all, the world's most renowned museums are filled with relics obtained in an era when provenance was not an issue. And cities such as New York, London and Paris contain massive granite obelisks from Egypt that symbolize their status as global repositories of antiquities.
Greece has been hammering Britain for decades to return looted statues taken from the Parthenon that draw throngs each year to the British Museum. The sculptures were brought to London by Lord Thomas Elgin, the former British ambassador to Constantinople, more than 200 years ago, and are commonly known as the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum says it has no intention of giving up the priceless pieces.
"We feel secure that our collection here is legally acquired," said Hannah Boulton, a museum spokeswoman. She noted that the Elgin Marbles had been on display at the museum for nearly 200 years, and had been given to the institution by the British government.
"Anyone can visit," she added, noting that the museum attempts to offer visitors "the whole world under one roof."
The British Museum's legal standing may be solid. International law hasn't kept pace with shifting global views over whether antiquities should be returned to their places of origin — often less-developed countries — or kept in big museums with resources for care and display.
China claims that a million of its artifacts are scattered around the world in 200 museums in 47 countries. It asserts that all the artifacts should be repatriated.
"The Chinese attitude that every Chinese antiquity that is outside China must be returned is quite ambitious," said David Gill, an expert in classical archaeology at Swansea University in Wales and the author of a blog, Looting Matters.
Lucille A. Roussin, who has a Ph.D. in art history and archaeology as well as a law degree and teaches at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said there's no dispute when Chinese officials say the bronze rat and rabbit heads that were auctioned by Christie's last week in Paris disappeared in the ransacking of the emperor's Garden of Perfect Brightness during the Second Opium War.
"Did they have a legal claim? No. Did they have a moral claim? Yes," Roussin said. The items in question "were certainly looted. But they were looted at a time when there was no international law on this kind of looted object."
Those arguments infuriate average Chinese. Even Hollywood film star Jackie Chan weighed in: "This behavior is shameful. . . . It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today."
In recent years, an arms-trading branch of the People's Liberation Army and wealthy individuals have sought to buy back China's antiquities abroad — only to drive prices higher.
Foreign scholars say the 1860 ransacking of the emperor's Summer Palace gardens has taken on greater meaning as China grows stronger and more assertive.
"It was a barbaric and appalling act of cultural vandalism, no doubt about it. But it's taken on a greater emblematic meaning with China's sense of aggrieved nationalism," said Geremie R. Barme, a Chinese scholar at Australian National University in Canberra.
Some countries, such as Cambodia, are barely able to halt the plunder of sites such as the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat. Others, such as Italy, have found success in negotiating directly with museums abroad, winning back well over 100 pieces in the past three years, including the stunning Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek terra cotta vase, that was held by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and returned early last year.
Rome has made headway in other cases. In late 2008, the Cleveland Museum of Art offered to return 14 ancient treasures. And in 2007, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return 40 pieces, including frescoes, marbles and bronzes, to Italy after a two-year dispute. In addition, the Getty agreed to adopt new acquisition policies for its collection.
Colin Renfrew, an archeologist and expert on illicit antiquities at Cambridge University in England, applauded the Getty's actions and has contrasted its approach to disputed antiquities with those of other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He's criticized both of those museums publicly for not returning disputed antiquities.
Many experts on art and antiquities, however, draw a clear distinction between pieces obtained long ago and more recent pieces going on the market. The British Museum, like many major institutions, adheres to a 1970 UNESCO protocol that was intended to thwart the theft of art and artifacts.
Under the protocol, "no respectable museum can respectably acquire an artifact that has come onto the market after 1970," Renfrew said.
The protocol has led a number of repatriations. Last year, Syria returned relics to Iraq, France returned items to Burkina Faso, and Denmark repatriated relics to China. Both Italy and the Vatican returned parts of the looted Parthenon to Greece.
Last year, in the Ethiopian town of Axum, tens of thousands of jubilant people turned out for the unveiling of a treasured obelisk that was taken by Italian troops in 1937 but returned after lengthy negotiations between Rome and Addis Ababa.
Last month, the Iraq Museum of Antiquities opened its doors for the first time since the world watched in shock as much of the collection vanished in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Iraqi officials believe most of the valuable artifacts were cleared out by expert thieves who used the chaos as cover.
"The real damage to the museum . . . was done by professionals," said Abdul Zahra al Talqani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism, which pushed for the re-opening of the museum.
He said that while more than 9,400 artifacts are still missing, the museum had gotten back another 6,000.
Some of Iraq's most precious heritage remains abroad, looted in a different era, most notably Babylon's Ishtar Gate, which sits in Berlin's Pergamon Museum.
"We have important pieces in London, Paris, Berlin," Talqani said. "We ask for them to be returned, but do not expect them ever to come home."
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent in London. Matthew Schofield of the Kansas City Star contributed to this article from Baghdad.)
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