A Chinese antique collector said yesterday he was the mystery collector behind winning bids for two imperial bronzes auctioned at Christie’s over Beijing’s objections, and that he made bogus offers to protest any sale of the looted relics.
“What I need to stress is that this money cannot be paid,” auction house owner Cai Mingchao (蔡銘超) told a news conference in Beijing. “At the time, I was thinking that any Chinese would do this if they could ... I only did what I was obliged to.”
The sensational announcement was the latest twist to a 150-year-old drama over the bronze rabbit and rat heads, which British and French forces stole from Beijing’s Summer Palace towards the end of the Second Opium War.
The bronzes, part of the art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, sold for 15.7 million euros (US$20.3 million) each at the Christie’s auction in Paris last Wednesday.
Beijing had repeatedly demanded the sale not go forward and that the relics be returned to China.
A transcript of Cai’s press conference was released by China’s Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, a cultural body that Cai advises, and which is dedicated to retrieving Chinese relics from abroad.
The transcript did not specify whether Cai could not pay for the relics because he did not have the money, or whether his inability to pay was for other reasons, such as his conscience not allowing him to buy looted items.
In the same statement, the vice head of the fund, Niu Xianfeng (牛憲峰), praised Cai while also saying the money “cannot” be paid.
Xinhua news agency carried an English-language report quoting Niu that indicated the fund and Cai, an advisor to the body, had worked together to sabotage the auction.
“The fund faced great pressure and risks by bidding for the two sculptures, but this was an extraordinary method taken in an extraordinary situation, which successfully stopped the auction,” Xinhua quoted Niu as saying.
However, creating further confusion over the issue, Xinhua’s Chinese-language service indicated the money might be paid.
“We ... are still within the payment period, it is not known right now whether or not the deal will go through,” it quoted Niu as saying.
Christie’s Web site said winning bidders at the auction had seven days to pay for the items.
Christie’s could not confirm Cai as the bidder, said Yvonne So, a Hong Kong-based spokeswoman for the auction house. Christie’s usually works with the buyer and vendor to find a solution if the bidder can’t or won’t pay, she said.
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