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Mystery bidder for looted art is Chinese - and isn't buying

A CHINESE antiques adviser said yesterday he was the mystery winner of the bidding for two looted imperial sculptures that were auctioned in Paris last week, but he has no intention of paying for the bronzes.

Cai Mingchao, a native of Xiamen in Fujian Province, told a news conference in Beijing that he was the person who bid 31.49 million euros (US$39.6 million) for the sculptures by telephone during the auction at Christie's last Wednesday.

Cai, owner of an auction company in Xiamen, is a collection adviser to the National Treasures Fund, a foundation that seeks to retrieve looted Chinese art and antiques.

He said his bid was simply a patriotic act, an apparent protest over the auction.

"I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment," Cai said. "The opportunity came to me, and I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.

"What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid."

An unnamed officer with the fund told Xinhua news agency that Cai registered as an individual bidder on the day of the auction because of his good reputation.

Usually, bidders are required to register several days before an auction.

The controversial sale made headlines in the Chinese news media for days and aroused the anger of many citizens who said the activities of the London-based auction house had harmed the cultural rights and national feelings of the Chinese people.

A French court rejected a legal challenge by a group of 81 Chinese lawyers calling for the auction to be stopped.

The bronze sculptures, the heads of a rat and a rabbit, were among 12 removed from a zodiac water clock in Beijing's Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, in 1860. They were among thousands of treasures looted by an Anglo-French expedition army the same year, when the troops burned down the royal garden.

Five of the 12 bronze animal fountainheads have been returned to China, while the whereabouts of the five others are unknown.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bronzes, part of the collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, were sold by Christie's Paris branch last Wednesday to an unidentified telephone bidder, fetching well above the estimated 8 million to 10 million euros each.

Zhao Qizheng, spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said in Beijing yesterday that the Christie's auction was "a lesson to the whole world, including the French people.

The looting and burning of Yuanmingyuan was a shock not only to Chinese but also for foreigners such as the French writer Victor Hugo, Zhao pointed out.

"In the eyes of history, one of the two outlaws will be called France, the other will be called England. I hope there will come a day when France, liberated and cleaned up, will send back this booty to a plundered China," Zhao quoted Hugo as saying.

Kate Swan Malin, public relations manager for Christie's in Asia, told Shanghai Daily yesterday that her company does not disclose the backgrounds or identities of bidders and declined to comment on Cai's assertions.

But as a general rule, the auction house usually works with the buyer and seller if the bidder refuses to pay.

Meanwhile, Shan Jing, chief representative of Christie's Beijing office, told Xinhua that Christie's may take legal action against Cai.

Wang Qing, spokesman for the Chinese lawyers group that has been trying to stop the auction by legal means, told Xinhua the attorneys were excited to hear the news.

"We admire Cai's action, which demonstrated the power of Chinese people," Wang said.

However, Gan Xuejun, general manager of Beijing Huachen Auctions Co, said Cai's tactics were improper and that he sacrificed his reputation as an antiques collector.

"I'm very surprised," Gan told Xinhua. "Cai made the choice in an urgent situation for the country, but I personally do not support such behavior."


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