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Patriotic bidder thwarts relics' sale
By Zhang Lei (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-03-03 07:46

The mystery bidder for the two looted Chinese bronze relics sold at Christie's high profile auction in Paris last week revealed his identity yesterday: A patriotic collector who wanted to thwart the sale.

Cai Mingchao, 44, told a press conference in Beijing that he would not pay for the bids; and that he made the bogus offer to protest the sale of looted Chinese relics.

The two bronzes of the heads of a rabbit and a rat were auctioned for 15 million euros ($20 million) each to an anonymous telephone bidder during the auction of the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's art collection.

Cai, also an advisor to the National Treasure Fund of China, set up to retrieve looted treasures, said: "What I want to stress is that the money won't be paid" for the relics stolen from Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War.

He said he had acted out of patriotism: "I believe that any Chinese person would stand up at that moment I am making an effort to fulfil my own responsibilities ... It's just the chance happened to come to me," he said.

Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of the fund, described Cai as an "admirable citizen" at the news conference.

"This is an extraordinary method taken in an extraordinary situation, which successfully stopped the auction," said Niu.

Cai, who runs an auction house in Fujian province, is best known for his interest in, and collection of, antique pieces that have been witness to the ebb and flow of history. Media reports earlier said that Cai regards contemporary art as "lacking in essence" and "spirit".

In 2006, Cai hit the headlines for paying a record HK$116.6 million for a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Buddhist bronze at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong, shocking many veteran art collectors and connoisseurs.

"The purchases are as much about patriotism as a love of art," Cai said in 2007. "Many of us just want these Chinese treasures to come home."

Because of his reputation, Cai successfully registered as a bidder on the day of the auction. Usually, bidders are required to register several days before.

Now the question is: What will happen if Cai doesn't pay?

Shan Jing, chief representative of Christie's Beijing office, said such a case would usually be submitted to the company's legal affairs department, and its lawyers would decide on the further course of action.

Wang Fenghai, chief lawyer at the China Association of Auctioneers, told China Daily that he is not optimistic about Cai's legal prospects.

"Theoretically, Cai is required to pay for the auction objects at the price agreed," he said. "In case of failing to do that, he is supposed to bear liabilities for default or, with the consent of ex-owner, Christie's may put the items up for auction again."

He added that Cai might be asked to pay the commission for the sale, estimated at 7 million euros for the 30-million-euro deal.

Kate Malin, a spokeswoman for Christie's in Hong Kong, would not comment as to what action the auction house would take, but said: "If someone doesn't pay, we try to work through the process with the buyer and the seller.

"No lot will be released until the outstanding amount due to Christie's has been received and the funds are cleared," she added.

Gan Xuejun, general manager of Beijing Huachen Auctions, said Cai's reputation in the auction business could be ruined, adding Christie's may take legal action to pursue payment from him.

The Chinese government has repeatedly demanded Christie's halt the sale of the two bronzes and return them to China.

Christie's insisted on the sale despite sweeping criticism and objections from China and around the world. After the sale, China said it would tighten checks on the auction house's operations.

The bronzes were once part of a fountain that displayed the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac at the Old Summer Palace. Five of the bronzes have been returned to China while the whereabouts of the remaining five are unknown.

Xinhua, agencies contributed to the story

(China Daily 03/03/2009 page1)