I won't pay for looted bronze heads, says bidder

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 March, 2009, 12:00am

A mainland collector had the art world in an uproar yesterday after saying he was the winning bidder for two looted bronze animal heads at a Christie's auction in Paris last week but had no intention of paying for them.

Cai Mingchao, who also owns an auction company in Xiamen, did not give a clear explanation at a press conference in Beijing on why he made the bogus bid.

'I was thinking at the time - every Chinese national should stand up to the occasion, and I had the opportunity so I only tried to fulfil my duty,' said the collector, who also serves as an adviser to China's Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Programme, a group that tries to repatriate looted Chinese art. 'But I must stress that I won't pay the money,' he added, without giving any details.

His fake bid was apparently made in co-operation with the group. Niu Xianfeng, vice-director of the programme, which organised yesterday's press conference, said: 'This is an extraordinary method taken in an extraordinary situation, which successfully stopped the auction.'

Mr Cai read out a prepared statement yesterday about the bid. He refused to answer media questions and could not be reached for comment afterwards. The two bronze artefacts are part of relics looted by the invading British and French soldiers from the Old Summer Palace in 1860.

The press conference was the latest episode in a saga surrounding Christie's controversial auction of the two bronze artefacts - the heads of a rabbit and a rat that adorned a fountain in the former Qing dynasty imperial garden in Beijing.

They were among the artworks collected by late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge. They sold for Euro15.7 million (HK$153.8 million) each at last week's auction, enraging both the Chinese public and authorities. The National Cultural Relics Administration promptly imposed punitive measures on Christie's, including tougher checks on its business activities on the mainland.

Christie's Hong Kong public relations manager Gillian Leung said the firm had abided by a code of confidentiality so she could not confirm whether Mr Cai was the actual buyer of the artefacts, nor whether he was liable for a fine.

'But we do normally require an ID check and bank statement from the potential buyer,' she said.