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Chinese imperial seal sells for 1.68 million euros

Despite angry protests from China, an 18th-century imperial seal which China says was looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing has been sold at a Paris auction for 1.68 million euros.

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AFP - A Chinese bidder Wednesday snapped up an 18th-century Qing Dynasty seal for 1.68 million euros (2.2 million dollars) at a Paris auction held despite protests from Beijing.

The white jade imperial seal, which Beijing says was looted from the Summer Palace in 1860, was acquired by a Chinese national who refused to give his name, telling reporters he was acting on behalf of an art collector in France.

Sold as part of a collection of Asian art, the seal went for more than five times its estimated price of 300,000 euros, after a tense bidding race with another Asian buyer in a packed auction room.

The authorities that manage Beijing's Summer Palace, former home to China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors, issued a sharp protest over the sale, saying the seal was looted by British and French forces in 1860.

"Such relics should all be repatriated to China and returned to their place of origin," the Beijing palace authority said in a statement.

"We once again express strong indignation at this sort of repeated action that hurts the Chinese people's feelings, harms their cultural interests, and violates relevant international pacts," it said.

The auction comes two months after the contested sale of two bronze animal heads looted from the Summer Palace, drawn from the collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge.

China's communist central government did not immediately comment.

Mounted with two carved dragons back to back, the seal comes from the personal collection of a descendant of Elie Jean de Vassoigne, a French general who commanded some of the invading troops.

The 10-centimetre piece bears an inscription reading "peace and tranquility to the nation."

Thierry Portier, auctioneer at Beaussant-Lefevre which organised the sale, said there was no reason not to go ahead.

Portier said General Vassoigne was not mentioned in records of the pillage of the Summer Palace, pointing out that he was in charge of Takov fort in Tiensin, 200 kilometres (120 miles) from Beijing, in 1860.

"We know he was in Takov at the time," he said, adding that it was not known how the seal came to be in his possession.

According to Portier, a dozen Chinese imperial seals are sold each year across the world, with one 17th-century piece snapped up in southern France last year for 5.6 million euros, without drawing complaints from China.

Christie's decision to sell the looted bronzes sparked a firestorm of criticism in China and further strained Sino-French relations already hurt by a December meeting between President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama.

Authorities in Beijing had repeatedly called for the sale of the Saint Laurent bronzes to be halted, and the relics returned to China.

A Chinese art collector later said he was the bidder but refused to pay the 31.4-million-euro sale price for the pair, leaving the auction in limbo.

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