In 2005, Sotheby's, with some some assistance from Christie's, helped lead the opposition to a MOU with the PRC. This time around, however, both auction houses have remained silent. Why the change? Recently, the PRC agreed to allow them to do business in China. Presumably, both companies have concluded selling modern art to Chinese citizens is more lucrative and far less of a hassle these days than selling Chinese antiquities to Americans.
Christie’s new business in China also presumably helps explain the Pinault family’s decision to repatriate two of the bronze fountain heads that were allegedly looted from the Summer Palace in the 19th century by an Anglo-French punitive expedition. The Pinaults -- who own Christie’s-- are not the first astute business interests to offer such sculptures as gifts. Stanley Ho, a Macao based gambling tycoon, also gained favor with the PRC when he donated a horse’s head from the group to a Chinese museum.
Repatriation of the bronze fountain heads has been a cause célèbre for the PRC Government, Chinese Nationalists and their allies in American archaeological advocacy groups like SAFE.
On the other hand, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has produced his own ironic take on the sculptures. His gigantic versions of the diminutive heads say something about the over sized Chinese nationalism these sculptures have come to embody.