Beijing backs away from relics bidder

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 March, 2009, 12:00am

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has sought to distance itself from the apparent sabotage of the auction of two bronze animal heads in Paris last week, saying 'it was totally the action of an individual'.

An unidentified administration official was quoted by several mainland media outlets as saying the buyer was responsible for his own actions.

The administration's comments came as the self-proclaimed winning bidder, Cai Mingchao, a mainland-based art collector and auctioneer, tried to defend his refusal to pay for the items, bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat that were looted from the Old Summer Palace in 1860.

In a press conference in Beijing on Monday, Mr Cai said he had made the winning bid of nearly Euro32 million (HK$312 million) but would not be paying up.

China has long held that the bronzes should be returned to it along with many other items looted from the country.

Shortly after the auction last Wednesday, the administration singled out Christie's for tougher scrutiny of its businesses activities on the mainland. Under the new measures Christie's will have difficulty bringing artefacts in and out of the country if it cannot provide documentation to prove their legal status.

The Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Programme, a non-profit organisation affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and which lists Mr Cai as an adviser, tried to connect Mr Cai's refusal to pay to measures the administration imposed on the international auction house.

'Cai Mingchao believes that he must abide by Chinese government regulations, and he and other Chinese collectors will do the same in the future,' the programme said. 'If the two items could not pass through customs, naturally the payment won't be made.'

In a statement released late on Monday night, Christie's said it could not specify what steps it would take over the matter, but it added that the items would not change hands unless the full payment was made.

Jia Tingfeng, executive director at China Broadway International Auction, a leading mainland auction house, said he personally believed that the heritage administration was acting inappropriately in targeting Christie's.

'China is a big country now after 30 years of reform and opening up, but this is not what a major country should do,' Mr Jia said.

He said Mr Cai's excuse was lousy and had made all Chinese people lose face.

Mr Cai denied he sabotaged the sales in return for fame, but he admitted that his actions would cost him dearly. 'I am in this business. It will certainly have a great impact on what I'm going to do in the future,' he said.

However online opinion polls conducted by mainland internet portals show overwhelming support for Mr Cai, who has been hailed a hero, something that saddened Mr Jia.