Lulu Yang

Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Restricted Access (SIA Only)

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Art Business

First Advisor

Judith Prowda

Second Advisor

Maria Sancho-Arroyo


In 2000, in spite of the strong protests from China, Sotheby’s Hong Kong office and Christie’s Hong Kong office proceeded the scheduled sales of three bronze animal heads looted from Yuanmingyuan by British and French troops during the First Opium War. 1 In 2009, again, regardless of the strong objections from China, Christie’s Paris salesroom proceeded to auction another two bronze animal heads plundered from Yuanmingyuan. Shortly after the auction was announced, in order to block the sale, a group of Chinese lawyers, the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE), filed a lawsuit, which was denied because the French court believed APACE was not a governmental organization that can claim ownership of looted cultural object on behalf of the source nation, thus not an eligible plaintiff. Many news reports covering this issue only caught the most eye-catching result but did not dig into the reason for the rejection, which contributed to a widespread misconception that the legality of the sale was validated by the court. The 2000 and 2009 auctions of animal heads are still notoriously well-known today. Outside of China, most of the time it’s referred to as a curious anecdote that tellingly shows the turbulence of the art market—the price of those bronze animal heads soared from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars after China started attempting to have them repatriated, but seldom studied from the perspective of viewing it as a failed restitution case. Sometimes it’s also referred as the Summer Palace or the Old Summer Palace. 1 1 In fact, research on looted or illegally trafficked Chinese cultural objects, not to mention their restitution, is fragmented within the international academic community. Relevant topics started to gain popularity in China in the past two decades. The focus has been mainly on how can the lost cultural objects be repatriated; however, not too much attention is being paid to addressing the problem that the issues of looted or illegally trafficked Chinese cultural objects are still being neglected or even misunderstood by most scholars and organizations overseas. This research hopes to fill this gap. The restitution of cultural objects is a concern for all mankind. However, those objects that were illegally migrated overseas, especially those looted during wartime, have stronger connections with their regional histories. This inevitably leads to the restitution topic being too closely related to a specific group of people, region, or nation for the whole international society to naturally be empathetic. The issue can be further muddled by complicated international political relations. Therefore, the source nations and the original owners need to speak up so that they can be heard, and then understood. This thesis paper argues that more attention and efforts are needed for the restitution of looted and illegally trafficked Chinese cultural objects. Since research of this topic would involve analyses of regional laws and policies, as well as surveys of behind-the-scene practice in local institutes, the scope of this paper is restricted to the Chinese cultural objects that had been looted during wartimes and political turmoils, with a special focus on those now removed to the US. 2 The historical background of why and how a significant number of Chinese cultural objects illegally traveled overseas will first be introduced. After an overview of the current legal protection of Chinese cultural objects, including international law, and domestic law in China and the US respectively, this thesis paper will delve into three issues that illustrate the insufficient attention paid to and the inadequate efforts put in the restitution of looted Chinese cultural object—large museums still refuse to return them, auction houses proceed the auction sales in spite of the protests from China, and many private collectors who still own Chinese cultural objects with suspicious provenance remain silent. How the history contributes to the difficulties of restitution, why the protection from the current legal system is deficient, and how the international political relations and international reputations complicate these issues will be dissected in each issue accordingly. Finally, the concluding chapter will contain a summary of the entire research and some brief suggestions for future research.