Auction of bronzes puts Paris' reputation at risk, says official

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 March, 2009, 12:00am

China turned up the heat on France yesterday over the controversial sale of two bronze animal heads, with National People's Congress spokesman Li Zhaoxing warning that the auction might have compromised the perception of Paris as the world's heritage capital.

Mr Li said one reason for the widespread criticism of the auction was that the sale of the looted items from China took place in Paris, a city renowned for its cultural heritage. 'To put it lightly, such an auction couldn't bring glory to the legacy of a country where the sales took place.'

Mr Li, who was known for his colourful quotes while serving as the country's foreign minister, was responding to Christie's auction of two Chinese bronzes in Paris last week for HK$150 million each. The sale of the two relics, bronze heads of a rat and rabbit believed to have been looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing nearly 150 years ago, angered the Chinese authorities and public.

Prominent Chinese collector and auctioneer Cai Mingchao claimed on Monday that he was the winning bidder but would refuse to pay, giving rise to reports that he had tried to sabotage the auctions out of patriotism.

Macau gaming magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun, who is in Beijing attending the annual meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the government's top advisory body, added his voice to a chorus of support for Mr Cai's perceived patriotic action, saying he clapped his hands for Mr Cai.

Mr Ho enjoyed a share of the limelight in recent years when he bought two other animals in the looted zodiac animal series - a bronze pig head for less than HK$7 million and horse head for HK$69 million - and donated them to the mainland.

'Of course the animal bronze heads should be returned to China,' Mr Ho said. 'If I were the French president, I would use every possible means to convince the people to return them to China.'

Citing Edward Dolman, chief executive of Christie's International, The New York Times reported on Monday that the auction house had privately offered the heads to the central government earlier, at a price 'significantly less than the underbidder was willing to pay'.

'They rejected the offer because they thought the price was too high,' Mr Dolman was quoted as saying.

Christie's refused to confirm the report, but in an earlier statement, the auction house said it believed that sale by public auction offered the best opportunity for the items to be repatriated as a result of the worldwide exposure.

Hainan University associate professor Wang Lin said China could still pursue the items under the 1995 Unesco Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

'But Mr Cai didn't do the country a favour by refusing to pay up, and what's more, it's unethical from a business point of view,' Professor Wang said.

Liu Yang, who headed up a group of Chinese lawyers in a failed attempt to stop the auction, said lawyers of Chinese origin around the globe watching developments in Paris had formed an alliance to help return the country's lost cultural relics.

Additional reporting by Grace Tsoi