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China demands return of Christie's 'looted relics'

The record-breaking auction of French designer Yves Saint-Laurent's art collection ended on Wednesday night, netting a total of 373.5 million euros. Mystery bidders bought two looted Chinese bronzes (photo) which Beijing had demanded be returned.

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AFP - China on Thursday vowed to place tougher checks on Christie's as it accused the auction house of repeatedly selling smuggled Chinese relics, in response to the sale of two ancient items in Paris.

"In recent years, Christie's has frequently sold cultural heritage items looted or smuggled from China, and all items involved were illegally taken out of the country," the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said.

In a statement, the administration announced increased checks of Christie's operations in China to halt what it said was the illegal trade.

The statement was part of an angry reaction from China to the sale on Wednesday at a Christie's auction in Paris of two bronze artifacts looted by British and French forces from Beijing's imperial Summer Palace 150 years ago.

The bronzes, part of the personal art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, sold for 15.7 million euros (20.3 million dollars) each to unidentified bidders.

The Qing dynasty fountainheads were looted from the palace in October 1860, towards the end of the Second Opium War -- which pitted the British and French against China.

China had demanded the relics be returned, but the French government said it received no official request and the sale went ahead after a Paris court threw out a last-ditch bid to remove the bronzes from auction.

The cultural heritage agency released an initial statement earlier Thursday condemning the Paris auction as illegal and warning Christie's there would be consequences.

In its later statement, it said it had pressed Christie's for the withdrawal of the Summer Palace relics.

"But Christie's took its own course and insisted on auctioning the relics looted from the Summer Palace in breach of the spirit of international pacts and the consensus on the return of such artifacts to their original countries," it said.

As part of the tougher regime to be imposed on Christie's, all relevant departments would be required to "seriously" check all items that the auction house intends to import or export from China, the cultural agency said.

All Christie's employees would also face tougher scrutiny, it said, without providing details.

AFP calls to Christie's offices in China went unanswered on Thursday.

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