AFP - Mystery bidders Wednesday snared a pair of ancient Chinese bronzes for 15.7 million euros (20.3 million dollars) each, as they went on the block at the record-smashing Yves Saint Laurent art auction despite protests from Beijing.
The precious Qing dynasty fountainheads, looted from the imperial Summer Palace by British and French troops 150 years ago, were snapped up one after the other by anonymous telephone bidders.
China had demanded the statues' return, but the French government said it received no official request from Beijing, and the sale went ahead after a Paris court threw out a Chinese group's last-ditch attempt to have it stopped.
The 18th-century statues of a rat's head and a rabbit's head went on the block along with dozens of Roman marbles and Egyptian antiquities 2,000 years old, collected by the late fashion designer and his partner Pierre Berge.
The relics were among the last of 732 treasures to go under the hammer in a three-day sale that has defied the credit crunch, as global art players sent prices for paintings, antiques and Art Deco gems through the roof.
Christie's, which organised the sale with Berge, announced at the sales' end it had pulled in 373.5 million euros (484.5 million dollars) -- making it the biggest private art sale in history.
Berge, 78, who opted to sell the collection amassed over a lifetime after Saint Laurent's death last June aged 71, is offering the proceeds to fight AIDS and to a foundation honouring the legendary designer's work.
"I am very happy tonight. I am certain that all those who acquired these works of art will cherish them," Berge told reporters, gathered under the glass dome of the Grand Palais exhibition hall.
Both he and Christie's refused to identify the mystery buyers of the Chinese bronzes, or to say if both were acquired by the same person.
"We are bound by the same confidentiality as doctors," said the deputy head of Christie's France, Francois de Ricqles, while Berge would only say: "It wasn't me who bought the heads back!"
There were no bids at all for the relics from within the sumptuous 1,200-seat auction hall, with three phone bidders battling it out amongst themselves in both cases.
Liu Yang, a Chinese lawyer who spearheaded efforts to have the pieces returned to Beijing, warned afterwards the sale would do nothing to improve Franco-Chinese relations, which have frayed over the sensitive issued of Tibet.
"I will not comment on diplomatic relations between states, but it will will certainly harm relations between the peoples of both countries," Liu told reporters at the Grand Palais.
China's foreign ministry said repeatedly in recent days it wanted them returned, as an inalienable part of Chinese heritage, while the Beijing-based Global Times accused France on Wednesday of "hurting China's feelings".
Berge, a longtime rights campaigner who chose to sell the collection following the designer's death, had offered to return the pieces to China in return for a pledge to improve human rights.
But the Chinese foreign ministry dismissed his offer as "just ridiculous."
Two dozen Chinese students rallied outside the Grand Palais ahead of the sale, handing out leaflets attacking the "barbaric and bloody history" behind the bronzes.
"Imagine if someone had burnt down your house and stolen your things -- what would you do?" asked one 28-year-old student, who would not give her name.
Some 350 items in the collection that adorned Saint Laurent and Berge's elegant homes were up for auction Wednesday, ending a spending spree that has set 25 records for art and design works from the 16th to the 20th century.
Monday alone ushered in seven world records for modern artists -- including Matisse, Mondrian, Klee and Brancusi.
Day two saw a new frenzy of bids for Art Deco works, clinching the sale of the 20th century's most expensive piece of furniture -- a leather armchair by Irish designer Eileen Gray -- for 21.9 million euros (28.2 million dollars).
So far, the highest price paid was 35.9 million euros (46.5 million dollars) for a Matisse.