In a final bid to block the sale of two €28m (£25.4m) imperial bronzes, a Chinese collector revealed himself as the winning bidder and said he had no intention of paying for them.
The extraordinary move follows repeated attempts by the Chinese
government and private citizens to stop what they claim is the sale
of treasures looted from China.
But dealers say they do no expect there to be a long-term
fall-out in the market for Chinese works of art, citing this saga
as a highly sensitive and special case.
The Qing bronze fountainheads of a rat and a rabbit were
consecutive lots in Christie's three-day auction of the collection
the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent, who had purchased them
legally in the 1970s.
They once formed part of the Haiyantang Zodiac water clock
designed by the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione
(1688-1766) for the Old Summer Palace, but disappeared when French
and British forces sacked and burned the palace complex in 1860,
the final act of the second Opium War.
They were deemed among the highlights of the YSL collection,
although their sale by auction was controversial and predictably
upset the China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH).
Bidding reached €14m (£12.7m) each on the evening of February
The Fujian province auction house owner Cai Mingchao called a
news conference on March 3 to announce himself as the buyer, but
added that his winning bids were a patriotic act of protest. He
would not - and could not - pay his bill. "These cultural relics
belong to China. They were looted by the West in time of war and
illegally taken abroad."
Mr Cai, an adviser to a Chinese non-profit group dedicated to
repatriating relics, is a well known as a client to the major
auction houses and the buyer of a number of big-ticket items,
including a Ming Buddha for a record HK$117m ($15m) at Sotheby's
Hong Kong in 2006. Accordingly, his request to bid by telephone for
the heads would have raised little suspicion. "At the time, I was
thinking that any Chinese would do this if they could," he told the
state-controlled news agency Xinhua on March 3.
Mr Cai says he acted without the support of the Chinese
government, although his behaviour will curry favour in Beijing.
The Chinese government protested the sale in the days leading up to
the auction - foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu called the
relics "stolen and robbed" - but a lawsuit brought by Chinese
cultural defence group Apace had been thrown out by a Paris
administrative court on February 23.
The 1995 United Nations Unidroit Convention limits claims on
stolen cultural artefacts to within 50 years of their theft.
In the immediate aftermath of the sale (before Mr Cai told his
story), SACH publicly announced their intention to punish
Christie's for their decision to proceed with the sale: "This has
hurt the cultural rights and interests of the Chinese people and
the national sentiment and will have a serious effect on Christie's
development in China." With control over import and export
documentation in and out of China, SACH have the power to make life
difficult for Christie's, particularly in Hong Kong, their third
Christie's - who are associated with Chinese auction room
Forever International - said they regretted SACH's "unusual step of
announcing reprisal measures as a consequence of [the] legal
auction of the fountainheads". They pointed out that the
fountainheads had a clear and extensive history of ownership dating
back over a century. Prior to the sale they had privately offered
the heads to the Chinese government at a price "significantly less
than the [anonymous] underbidder was willing to pay". That offer
The actions of the Chinese government during this affair have
placed a question mark over future sales of important Imperial
works of art. Many works of art removed from China reside in
Western public and private collections - particularly the Imperial
porcelain vessels that were specifically targeted by British and
French looters. They regularly appear for sale.
However, the Mayfair-based dealer Roger Keverne, chairman of the
Asian Art in London event, believes this to be a special
case. Artefacts taken from the Old Summer Palace at the end of the
second Opium War had a symbolic significance for China, said Mr
Keverne, and the 12 zodiac animal heads have become totemic of a
site he describes as "a national humiliation monument".
The Old Summer Palace, known in China as Yuan Ming Yuan (the
Gardens of Perfect Brightness), were put to the flame by British
and French troops in October 1860, a cultural catastrophe still
regarded as a symbol of overseas aggression and humiliation in
Despite calls to rebuild the site - a complex of palaces and
gardens where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty resided and handled
government affairs - the Chinese government has decided instead to
preserve the ruins to teach future generations about the
consequences of being dominated by foreign powers.
The appearance of other heads from the fountain on the market in
recent years has created tension, albeit on a lesser scale. The $2m
sale of a tiger's head at Sotheby's in 2000 sparked protests in
Hong Kong. A horse head dur to be offered by Sotheby's in September
2007 was bought privately for $8.9m by Macau billionaire Stanley Ho
who also bought the fountain's boar head in 2003 at a private sale.
Both were donated to Beijing's Poly Museum, where the monkey and ox
heads from the fountain already reside. The whereabouts of the
other bronzes are unknown.
There has been no response from Christie's regarding Mr Cai or
the status of the two heads, but it is understood Pierre Bergé had
chosen to keep them.
"The issue has been completely overblown," said London-based
dealer Ben Janssens. "The heads were made by a Western person in
the 18th century and they've been in a Western collection for more
than 100 years."
• The US State Department signed an accord with China on January
14 banning the import of Chinese antiquities dating from before
907AD if not accompanied by a documented provenance. The measure
was passed in an attempt to combat the illicit trade in smuggled
works of art.
By Roland Arkell