PARIS — France called Tuesday for the fate of relics looted with British forces from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing exactly 150 years ago to be discussed calmly after China renewed calls for their return.
"The pillaging of the Summer Palace was a tragedy and is part of the history shared by our two countries," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told journalists at a daily briefing.
It is also "a story that we can study together, scientifically and serenely," he said as China marked the 150th anniversary of the looting, seen as a cause of national humiliation at the hands of Western armies.
The Yuanmingyuan, a summer resort garden for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was pillaged by a joint British and French military expedition during the second Opium War on October 18-19, 1860.
Valero said the world had given the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO the means to resolve such conflicts, including a 1970 convention which remains "the judicial framework of reference for France."
"It is within this framework that we should, collectively, fight against this plague" of art thefts and protect "the cultural and artistic heritage that humanity has in common," he said.
The Yuanmingyuan park authority has called on museums to return looted items, and for a boycott on auctions featuring the relics.
A petition has been started and martial arts film star Jackie Chan has been brought in to support China's effort.
In February 2009, two bronze fountainheads looted from the palace that belonged to late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge were auctioned at Christie's for about 20 million dollars each.
The sale enraged Beijing, which accused the house of regularly selling smuggled Chinese relics. The mystery Chinese bidder later said he would not pay and the items were returned to Berge.