By Lucien Libert
Pierre Berge attends a news conference at the Christie's auction house in Paris September 26, 2008. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)
PARIS - The former partner of Yves Saint Laurent, who is selling the art collection he built up with the late fashion designer, said he would hand over two sculptures claimed by China -- but only if Beijing agreed to free Tibet.
Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent's former business partner and companion, is organizing the biggest private auction of art seen in Paris for years, selling the huge collection built up by the two in a three-day auction next week.
Among the works of art are two Chinese bronze sculptures of a rabbit and a rat head, taken during the Opium Wars of the 19th century that the Beijing government said earlier this month belonged to China and should not be auctioned.
Berge said he was not concerned by a claim due to be heard by Paris judges on Monday seeking to have the bronzes returned.
"I acquired them and I am completely protected by the law, so what the Chinese are saying is a bit ridiculous," he told Reuters Television on Friday. "But I am prepared to offer this bronze head to the Chinese straight away."
"All they have to do is to declare they are going to apply human rights, give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory," he said.
"If they do that, I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing."
"It's obviously blackmail but I accept that," he said.
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950 and the region's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in 1959 after a failed uprising against Beijing's rule.
The official Xinhua news agency said earlier this month that the two sculptures, estimated to be worth 8-10 million euros ($10-12 million) each, were taken from Beijing's Imperial Summer Palace, burned down by invading French and British forces in 1860.
Xinhua said China and France signed a 1995 convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural objects, "which stipulated that any cultural object looted or lost because of reasons of war should be returned without any limitation of time span."
The Berge-Saint Laurent collection, gathered over decades, ranges from the two Chinese bronzes to paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Degas as well as art deco treasures and ancient Roman and baroque sculptures.
Saint Laurent, whose clothing designs revolutionized women's fashion, died at the age of 71 last year and bequeathed his share of the collection to the charitable foundation he set up with Berge.
Auctioneers Christie's expect the sale to raise up to 300 million euros, which Berge has said he will donate to AIDS research.(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Jon Boyle)