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Plundered Chinese Sculptures Auctioned Off

Two rare bronze sculptures that disappeared from China nearly 150 years ago - and that Beijing now wants back - sold for euro14 million each on Wednesday at an auction of art works owned by the late designer Yves Saint Laurent.

The collection of Saint Laurent and his partner already had brought in more than euro300 million - and broken several world records - before the first drop of the gavel on Wednesday, the final day of the three-day auction.

The disputed bronze fountainheads - heads of a rat and a rabbit that disappeared from China's Summer Imperial Palace in 1860 - were sold to unidentified telephone bidders.

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage wrote to Christie's last week urging it to stop the auction, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported. An agency spokesman said Christie's had replied, but declined to discuss specifics, the report said.

Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Berge, insisted the auction should go ahead as planned, and on Monday a French judge refused a request to halt the sale of the artifacts.

From the start, the auction appears to have ignored the controversy - and the world financial crisis.

The first two days of the auction netted euro307 million ($391.8 million) - already topping Christie's expectations of euro200 million to euro300 million for the whole event.

That was welcome news for a world art market worried that the global economic crisis is cutting into art investments, and for Christie's, which wants the auction to boost flagging sales.

In the auction's second round Tuesday night, 19th-century paintings and 20th-century decorative artworks took in a total of euro101 million ($128.9 million), according to Christie's.

The auction house said an armchair embellished with snakes and designed by Eileen Gray set a record for a piece of 20th-century furniture, selling at euro21.9 million ($27.95 million).

Snakes fascinated Saint Laurent. A vase with a serpent by Jean Dunand was sold for euro270,000 ($344,600) - nine times higher than the highest pre-auction estimate.

Another threshold was passed for a painting by Ingres, "Portrait de la comtesse de La Rue" (Portrait of the Countess of La Rue), which sold for euro2.081 million ($2.66 million), a record for the French neoclassical painter, Christie's said.

Saint Laurent's enormous collection, gathered over half a century, was put on public view in New York and London before coming to Paris. The designer died last year at age 71.

A large portion of the proceeds is to go to a foundation to support AIDS research.

The items that drew the most attention were the two Chinese bronzes, which disappeared from the summer Imperial Palace on the outskirts of Beijing when French and British forces sacked it at the close of the second Opium War in 1860.

The fountainheads date to the early Qing Dynasty, established by invading Manchu tribesmen in 1644.

Christie's issued a statement Tuesday saying it "supports repatriation of cultural relics to their home country and aids in the process where possible by sourcing and bringing works of art to the auction platform to give buyers a chance to bid for them."

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