Lessons learned from the Sacking of the Summer Palace in China: Diplomacy and Restitution Revisited
December 5, 2019
One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned….Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England…I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China. Meanwhile, there is a theft and two thieves.
– Victor Hugo, “The Sack of the Summer Palace”
by Merve Stolzman
Built between 1750 and 1764 during the Qing dynasty, the Yuanmingyuan Garden in Beijing, commonly known as the Old Summer Palace, was a masterpiece of imperial garden design. A variety of halls, pavilions, palaces, temples, bridges, fountains, lakes, and hills dotted across this “Garden of Gardens.” The buildings within it were elaborately carved and decorated, and housed thousands of Chinese paintings, antiquities, and other works of art. However, in 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French forces looted and burned down the Old Summer Palace.
Chinese emperors restored the gardens, first in 1886 and then in the early 1900s, and the government designated it as a public park in 1924. Nevertheless, over 150 years later, thousands of looted Chinese artifacts remain on display in foreign museums around the world, such as the British Museum and Château de Fontainebleau. (Read about recent (Mar.1, 2015) theft of “Asian” artifacts from Chateau de Fontainebleau here). Some, however, have found their way back home.
In February 2014, the KODE Art Museum in Bergen, Norway entered into a trilateral agreement with a Chinese businessman, Huang Nubo, and Peking University to return to China seven marble columns that once decorated the Western-section of the Old Summer Palace for permanent displayed at Peking University. The columns were part of a 2,500-piece collection of Chinese antiquities housed at KODE. Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe, a collector of Chinese artifacts who settled in China in 1886, donated the collection to the KODE between 1907 and 1935, but how he obtained the looted columns remains a mystery.
International law mandates the restitution of illicitly exported cultural artifacts to their states of origin. Article 7(b)(ii) of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (“1970 Convention”) requires states parties to recover and return cultural property within their territory that was illegally exported out of the territory of another state party, should that state request restitution. As of January 2015, 127 states have ratified this convention, and enacted national legislation giving effect to the obligations contained within.
One such example is the Australian Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act (1986). Part II, Division 2 of this legislation provides that where a foreign country’s moveable cultural property was illicitly exported and subsequently imported into Australian territory, the government can seize the property and return it to that country. The export of the property in question from the host state must have been prohibited at the time of export. While this provision is permissive, Australia has implemented it on several occasions to honor restitution requests from foreign governments. It has set up bilateral agreements with the Republic of Korea and China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage regulating the import, export and return of the cultural property of those countries. The government has also accepted several standing requests for seizure and return of illegally exported artifacts from countries such as Argentina, Egypt, Cambodia, and Greece.
Notably, in September 2014, the Australian government complied with India’s request for the return of two statues of Hindu deities stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu. The National Gallery of Australia bought one in February 2008 from New York-based art dealer, Subhash Kapoor. The Art Gallery of New South Wales bought the other in 2004 from the same dealer. India Kapoor is currently on trial in India for allegedly stealing many antiquities, including the two statues, and smuggling them out of India.
While Australia’s conduct illustrates how the international restitution regime can effectively be implemented, the Norwegian-Chinese context exposes a gap in the legal regime. This gap centers on the non-retroactive nature of the 1970 Convention and national restitution laws. Both Norway and China are parties to the 1970 Convention. However, the convention does not contain any provisions that apply it retroactively to cultural artifacts that were smuggled out of the territory of a state party before the convention came into force. Recognizing this, UNESCO set up the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (“ICPRCP”) in 1978. This permanent advisory body, comprised of twenty-two UNESCO member states that rotate every four years, encourages and helps facilitate bilateral negotiations between UNESCO member states for the restitution of cultural property of “fundamental significance” illicitly exported out of the host country before 1970. ICPRCP also advises on mediation and conciliation procedures to the member states concerned. However, in order for the host state to request the restitution of cultural property through the ICPRCP mechanism, it needs to initiate bilateral negotiations with the other member states concerned. These negotiations also must have stalled or failed before the request. Since 1983, the ICPRCP has assisted in six successful restitution negotiations.
Norway’s restitution laws, found primarily in § 23a of the Cultural Heritage Act (1979), require that Norway return unlawfully exported cultural objects to their state of origin. However, it is important to acknowledge that the KODE case is not one where the cultural artifacts in question were unlawfully exported. Section 9 of the Regulations on the export and import of cultural objects defines unlawful export in part as “any export from the territory of a State in breach of this State’s legislation on the protection of cultural objects.” KODE acquired the columns between 1907 and 1935, and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics, which governs the export of movable Chinese artifacts, was first enacted in 1982. Consequently, Munthe did not export the Old Summer Palace columns illegally because there were no laws at that time that regulated their export. The timing of KODE’s acquisition of the columns prevents China from obligating Norway to return its national treasures through the 1970 Convention or Norway’s restitution laws. Moreover, unlike Australia, Norway has not entered into a bilateral restitution agreement with China. In effect, the existing framework does not provide China with a legal basis to claim restitution of its cultural objects looted before the mid-to-late 1900s.
Whether China and Norway attempted to negotiate the return of the columns is unknown, and given that diplomatic ties between both countries have been frozen since 2010, it is unlikely that Norway and China would have initiated bilateral negotiations over the return of the columns. These circumstances prevent China from soliciting the ICPRCP’s help in resolving the matter, since, as mentioned above, the intergovernmental body requires the two states concerned to have initiated bilateral negotiations, and these negotiations need have failed or been suspended, before requesting the cultural property’s restitution through the ICPRCP’s mechanism.
In the context of the seven columns at KODE, China’s inability to compel Norway to restitute its artifacts through legal or diplomatic measures is not problematic because KODE agreed to return the columns to China through private negotiations. Such mechanisms are potentially effective alternatives to legal claims or bilateral agreements between governments, and China has benefitted from them on several occasions. For instance, French billionaire, François-Henri Pinault, purchased two bronze heads, one of a rat and the other of a rabbit that were once part of a fountain clock in the Old Summer Palace, and donated them to the National Museum of China. However, these private agreements are contingent on the will of museums and individuals to enter into such arrangements, which may be difficult to obtain. The Chinese government explicitly recognized this in its 2011 periodic report to UNESCO on its implementation of the 1970 Convention. In response, it has attempted to negotiate the return of its cultural property with foreign museums. Such efforts are commendable and necessary.
International and domestic law have set up an enforceable framework for the return of illicitly exported cultural property. However, this regime has failed to address the restitution of artifacts stolen and imported into other countries before the early twentieth century. The laws that regulate the modern import and export of stolen cultural property will likely never be applied retroactively. After all, non-retroactivity is a fundamental legal principle, particularly in the international context where states are only bound by the laws to which they agree. For this reason, it is important for states, and the rest of international community, to support and promote bilateral negotiations, voluntary donations and/or private restitution agreements. In the absence of mandatory obligations to restore looted objects to their state of origin, such arrangements are essential to the success of the international restitution framework, and may spearhead efforts to promote restitution at the national and international level.
Note from the Editors: Despite the wide acceptance of the 1970 Convention, United Nations Security Council still finds it necessary to issue Special Resolutions to prevent illicit traffic in cultural property. See for example, UN Security Council Resolution 2199.)
- Victor Hugo, The Sack of the Summer Palace, UNESCO: The Courier, (Nov. 1985), at 15, available at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0006/000669/066943eo.pdf.
- Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden in Beijing, UNESCO World Heritage Center, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/880/ (last visited Jan. 25, 2015).
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About the Author: Merve Stolzman is a third-year law student, American University Washington School of Law; she is the current Symposium Editor of the American University International Law Review. Her areas of interest include: international humanitarian law, the use of force, cultural heritage law, international investment law, and international development law.