A French judge has ruled against halting the sale of disputed Chinese bronze fountainheads heading for Christie's auction block as part of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's estate.

The judge has also ordered the association that sought to prevent the sale to pay $1,273 in fines each to the auction house and to the firm of Pierre Berge, the longtime partner of the French fashion icon.

The brronze heads of a rabbit and a rat 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.

China still points to the sacking as a vivid example of past humiliation at foreign hands.

The dispute has cast a shadow over what some are calling the "sale of the century," the three-day auction of 733 works of art collected over half a century by the French fashion icon and his partner, Pierre Berge.

Lawyers for a group seeking to protect Chinese cultural heritage faced off in a Paris court Monday against lawyers for Christie's and Saint Laurent's estate hours before the auction was scheduled to begin.

The judge had been expected to rule at midday but postponed the decision until Monday evening.

The China-linked group, APACE, is trying to block only the sale of the bronzes, not the entire auction. The group acknowledges Saint Laurent acquired the bronzes legally but says they should be returned to China or at least displayed in a museum.

The fountainheads date to the early Qing Dynasty, established by invading Manchu tribesmen in 1644. The Christie's catalog says they were made for the Zodiac fountain of the summer Imperial Palace.

The rat's head sculpture is about 12 inches tall and 16 inches long. The rabbit is about 18 inches tall and 14 inches long.

They are expected to sell for up to $13 million each, according to news reports.

"I do not have the intention of giving these heads to the Chinese government," Berge said Friday. "Rather, I would recommend that the Chinese, instead of getting worked up over the heads, worry about human rights."

Beyond the bronzes, the auction will be closely watched in the art world amid worries the financial crisis is cutting into the market.

Highlights include Piet Mondrian's 1922 painting, "Composition in Blue, Red, Yellow and Black," whose squares of saturated colors inspired Saint Laurent's renowned 1965 shift dress, and a wooden sculpture by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi expected to sell for anywhere between $19 million-$25 million.

The highest price is expected to go to a 1914-1915 Picasso painting called "Instruments de musique sur un gueridon," (Musical Instruments on a Table) from his cubist period. The canvas is the last large-format painting from the period still in private hands, Christie's said.

The Picasso estimated worth is between $32 million-$38 million.

Other lots include sculptures from ancient Egypt and Rome, ivory crucifixes and silver German beer steins that covered every available surface of Saint Laurent's homes. Also on sale is his Art Deco furniture and his bed.

The sale is expected to gross around $250 million-$380 million. A portion of the proceeds will go to support AIDS research.

Saint Laurent died in June at age 71 of brain cancer.