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China says Stolen Art in French Designer's Estate Auction


An estate auction starting Monday in Paris is being described as the "sale of the century", but is generating political waves after China demanded the return of a pair of bronze animal statues. We have more on the controversy surrounding the sale from the French capital.

The auction involves a staggering collection of prized paintings, furniture, knick-knacks and other cultural objects belonging to deceased French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge.

Christie's auction house will be selling more than 700 art objects to some of the world's top buyers - museums and wealthy collectors. Experts say the three-day auction could make nearly $400 million.

But the auction has political undertones, notably a pair of bronze busts of a rabbit and a rat believed to have been looted by British and French troops in China 150 years ago.

Beijing wants the two pieces to be returned China and Chinese lawyers recently launched legal action to stop the auction. Christie's says the sale is legal and will go on.

French businessman Berge, who collected the artwork with Saint Laurent over the years, says he would return the bronzes to China if Beijing recognizes human-rights issues.

The political wrangling has not prevented thousands of people from flocking to the Grand Palais museum in Paris, where the items were on display until midnight Saturday and Sunday.

Kouma Kouanvih waited 2.5 hours in line to get in Saturday night, but she said it was worth it.

Kouanvih did not see the bronzes, but she believes China is wrong to be asking for their return. She said with so many foreign artifacts acquired legally or illegally by various countries, the process of returning them would be endless.

Cecile Pascual, who also saw the display, weighed in on the debate.

"I kind of understand how the Chinese government feels about this but at the same time, if it was less money I would say they would not care about it," said Cecile Pascual.

While the Chinese dispute over the bronzes involves a personal collection, it follows several incidents straining French-Chinese relations. That includes the disruption of the Olympic torch relay through Paris last year by pro-Tibetan protesters. China also canceled a European Union summit after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

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