Relics Of Pride

As soon as the auctioneer placed lot 749 on the block, the crowd murmured with excitement. Beijing had done its best to stop last week's scheduled sale of the life-size bronze tiger head and three other Qing Dynasty treasures at Christie's and Sotheby's in Hong Kong. An official from the State Bureau of Cultural Relics warned that both auction firms would "have to pay for their ill-advised choice" unless they withdrew the items from bidding. Street protesters denounced the auctions as a national insult -- a humiliation that began 140 years ago, when Europeans looted the items from an imperial palace on the outskirts of Beijing and burned what they couldn't steal.

Last week China vowed to reclaim at least four tiny fragments of China's pride. Christie's and Sotheby's shrugged off the official threats, insisting the auctions were entirely legal. Hong Kong's attorney general, Elsie Leung, backed them up, saying she had no legal cause to interfere. All the efforts of the Relics Bureau seemed useless -- until the last minute, when agents from two state-run companies appeared and outbid all rivals for the four masterpieces, putting up a total of more than $6 million. The China Poly Group, a conglomerate that used to be a commercial branch of the People's Liberation Army, led the way. The group paid roughly $4 million for the tiger head and two bronze companion pieces, an ox and a monkey. (The group's Beijing headquarters includes a public museum with a fine collection of bronzes but it had no way to incorporate the fourth auction item, a hexagonal ceramic vase.) "This was about our national dignity," the group's bidder, Yi Suhao, told NEWSWEEK. "Can you put a price on that?"

China's rising tide of nationalism has spread far beyond the mundane bounds of political quarrels. Until a few years ago, Beijing practically winked at corrupt officials' rampant pillaging of their country's archeological and artistic heritage. Now, the government is waging an increasingly vehement campaign to stop the looting and to salvage as much as possible of the country's incalculable wealth of historic artifacts. Lately Beijing has even enlisted international help in stopping the traffic. In March, for example, Beijing charged that a marble wall panel at Christie's New York branch had been chiseled from a tomb in rural China. U.S. Customs agents impounded it pending further investigation. "Chinese are beginning to rediscover their cultural heritage," says A. Bobby Mohseni, a Hong Kong-based expert in Asian art. "They're suddenly becoming aware of what they've lost."

Politically, they have always been painfully conscious of their losses. Ever since the European powers occupied China in the 19th century, Chinese people have deplored their country's weakness. In 1860 they watched in anguish as British and French troops looted Beijing's Old Summer Palace, carrying away a fabulous haul of treasure, including the four pieces put up for bids last week. To this day, schoolchildren are taught never to forget those humiliations. But until the economic boom of the past decade, China was too weak and poor to do anything about it. The hexagonal vase sold last week has a mate that used to sit beside it in the palace. Sotheby's sold that one to a Taiwanese bidder for just a few thousand dollars in 1988. Beijing didn't place a bid. "They weren't even in the market," says a major antiquities dealer. "They didn't have the cash."

They have it now. Last month the Shanghai Library paid several million dollars to bring home a group of 542 ancient Chinese texts from a private collection in New York. When threats and denunciations failed to stop the Hong Kong auctions, the China Poly Group said it decided to use its financial strength to bring the treasures home. "Originally we hadn't planned to buy them," Ma Bao-ping, vice director of the group's Beijing museum, told NEWSWEEK. Only minutes before the first auction began, when they received final word that government appeals had been rejected, did they decide to bid. "We were on the phone constantly with the Cultural Relics Bureau," says Ma. "We must have made a hundred calls that day." The richly furnished museum opened last December. Under the direction of leading scholars, its curators are systematically expanding their collection of bronzes, swords, bells, vessels and wine goblets. The three animal heads were from an elaborate waterclock decorated with the signs of the Chinese zodiac.

The auctioneers don't regret all the fuss. All four artifacts sold for prices far higher than their estimated value. Taiwanese dealers and collectors, who own many of the most valuable Chinese antiques in circulation, say they expect the high prices and publicity to produce an overall rise in the market. "If you compare Chinese and Western antiquities, the prices for the Chinese have always been too low," says Wang Ting-chien, a buyer for Taiwanese Humble House, a cultural foundation. K.Y. Liao, the deputy curator for Taiwan's Chang Foundation, which owns the other hexagonal vase, says: "It's good to let the whole world know the value of Chinese art."

Still, some in the business are privately worried that authorities may be preparing to shut down the Hong Kong art pipeline. Shops on Hollywood Road are still crammed full of smuggled antiques -- which are sold legally once they enter Hong Hong. Some patriotic Hong Kong legislators are considering measures to restrict the sale of Chinese antiques in the territory. "Everyone is apprehensive about what the Hong Kong government will do," says one established dealer. Some of the biggest names are starting to show a little sweat. "It is potentially damaging if you have political elements enter into commercial decisions," says Anthony Lin, director of Christie's. By the same token, China could be facing major damage of another sort if the illegal traffic in ancient treasures is allowed to continue unchecked.

Right now the tide seems to be running against the dealers and collectors. All over the world, governments and peoples are angrily demanding the return of treasures they say were stolen from their ancestors, sometimes many centuries ago. Their claims have the legal staffs at many of the world's leading museums working late into the night. For the last several years Tokyo's leading antiquities dealer, Noriyoshi Horiuchi, has been helping Kyoto's new Miho Museum build a magnificent collection of Asian and classical Western art. Just last month experts accused the museum of displaying a Bodhisattva statue that was allegedly stolen from a county office in Shangdon province six years ago. The museum is investigating the case, but says it legally bought the piece "in good faith." Says Horiuchi: "If we got rid of everything that somebody has raised some kind of questions about -- particularly the ones involving their authenticy -- we could lose 60 to 70 percent of the collection."

That's not China's worry. The Chinese people want their past back -- now. Museum directors like Ma are bringing a sense of sacred mission to their work. "We don't own these objects," he says. "They own us." Yi was radiant after his victory on the auction floor. "Today the Poly Group has stood up," he declared. "Tomorrow another state-owned enterprise will stand up. Then another. Then another. It's for the next generation." Ma, Yi and their colleagues have two centuries of humiliation to make up for.