French auction of US$3m relic delayed after Vietnam request

AN auction of a 19th century Vietnamese imperial seal has been postponed in France after the government in Hanoi said it's seeking talks aimed at possibly returning the historic piece to its home country.

French auction house Millon said in a notice on its website that the sale, which had originally been slated for Monday (Oct 31) afternoon in Paris, is delayed until Nov 10 due to "the strong interest of the Vietnamese state."

Vietnamese officials signalled a deal might be struck before that deadline.

"The imperial golden seal is an antique which represents a lot of values from a historical period of Vietnam," said Nguyen Phuong Hoa, head of the international cooperation department at Vietnam's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Vietnam sought a delay in the auction in order to allow "for a direct negotiation between the two sides in hopes of returning the artifact to Vietnam," she added.

The bronze seal weighing 11 kilogrammes (24 pounds), with a large flying dragon sculpture on top, was valued at as much as 3 million euros (S$4.2 million), according to a description page of the item which has since been taken down. It was made in 1823 and owned by the Emperor Minh Mang, who ruled Vietnam between 1820 and 1841.

Millon said on its website that the seal, part of 330 pieces of Vietnamese artwork being auctioned, was owned by Bao Dai, the final emperor of the Nguyen dynasty who later ruled South Vietnam from 1949 to 1955, and passed on to his descendants. Bao Dai was widely seen as a puppet of France - which colonised Vietnam for decades until 1954 - where he lived in exile after his ouster.

Bao Dai's Rolex watch, one of the rarest of its kind, sold for US$5 million at Phillips auction house in 2017. The timepiece was one of three black-dial models known to exist with diamond hour markers.

The delay in auctioning the imperial seal comes amid a global backlash against the sale of historical artifacts, which campaigners allege were often stolen from countries colonised in the past and argue should be returned to their home nations.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has had several items confiscated by law enforcement in recent years, including a marble head of the goddess Athena, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported this year.

Millon was not immediately available to respond to queries from Bloomberg News sent outside normal business hours in France. BLOOMBERG

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