Bidder refuses to pay for looted Chinese bronzes

A Chinese collector who bought two bronzes (pictured) at the Yves Saint Laurent auction in Paris says he has no intention of paying. The bronzes were looted from a Chinese imperial palace and Beijing had demanded their return.


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AFP - A Chinese antique collector said Monday he was the mystery person behind the winning bids at a Paris auction for two relics originally looted from Beijing, but declared he would not pay for them.

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 China's imperial 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 (20.3 million dollars) each at the Christie's auction in Paris last week.

Authorities in Beijing had repeatedly demanded the sale not go ahead, and that the relics be returned to China.

Cai Mingchao, a well-known antique collector, identified himself as the mystery bidder, in a statement released in Beijing by the National Treasures Fund, which is dedicated to retrieving Chinese relics from abroad.

"I believe that any Chinese person would stand up at this time... I am making an effort to fulfil my own responsibilities," Cai said.

"But I must stress that this money I cannot pay."

The fund statement 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, praised Cai while also saying the money "cannot" be paid.

China's official 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 may indeed 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 website said successful bidders at last Wednesday's auction had seven days to pay for the items. A spokeswoman for Christie's in Beijing said the auction house had no immediate comment.

Niu refused to comment further on the phone, referring AFP to the fund's statement.

After the sale, China reacted furiously, with government authorities warning Christie's it would face reprisals such as tougher checks on its Chinese operations.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage said last week the auction had "harmed the cultural rights and hurt the feelings of China's people".

"(The administration) resolutely opposes and condemns all auctions of artefacts illegally taken abroad. Christie's must take responsibility for the consequences created by this auction," it said.

The bronzes were once part of a fountain that displayed the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Five of the bronzes have been returned to China with the military-run Poly Group -- China's biggest arms seller -- recently purchasing four of the heads at auction and putting them on display at a Beijing museum.

Gaming magnate Stanley Ho scooped up another one in 2007, a horse head for 69.1 million Hong Kong dollars (8.84 million US dollars), which is now on display at his Lisboa casino in Macau.

Cai, who is also the head of a Chinese auction house, hit the headlines in 2006 when he paid 116 million Hong Kong dollars for a Ming dynasty Buddha image at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong.

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