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New twist to looted-treasures story

THE Chinese antiques collector who submitted the winning bid in a Paris auction for two looted bronze animal heads and refused to pay issued a new statement yesterday that called into question what he told reporters the day before.

Cai Mingchao, the winning bidder, said yesterday that the bronzes were not allowed to enter China because of a regulation issued a day after the auction by China's cultural relics administration. As a result, the payment should not be made, Cai said in a statement released by China's National Treasure Fund, for which he is a collection adviser.

On Monday, however, Cai told a news conference in Beijing that he had committed a "patriotic act" in bidding for but not actually buying the sculptures. His earlier statement was seen by Netizens as an act of protest.

China has repeatedly demanded the return of the sculptures ?? the heads of a rat and a rabbit ?? looted when the Old Summer Palace in Beijing was burned down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.

"The auction negated the history that the cultural relics were looted, defied the ethics of international society and breached the rules of commercial auctions," Cai said in yesterday's statement.

Cai said the sculptures would disappear forever and that auctioning looted antiques could become "a commercial practice" had he not been the final bidder at last Wednesday's sale by Christie's auction house.

"I got the chance, and I was capable of buying the bronzes at the time of the auction," Cai said. "As a Chinese collector and art adviser, I'm willing to rescue looted artworks."

Cai won the auction by bidding 31.49 million euros (US$39.63 million) by telephone for the pieces, which were from a collection owned by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner.

So far, five of the 12 animal heads that were part of a zodiac-themed water clock have been returned, while the whereabouts of five others are unknown.

An online survey conducted by showed that more than 70 percent of Netizens supported Cai's actions in trying to safeguard China's interests. But others said China's reputation would be affected, and Christie's can always hold future auctions.

An attempt to reach Cai was unsuccessful yesterday, and employees of his company in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, said they had lost contact with their boss since Monday.

The company was established in 2003 with 1.16 million yuan in registered capital and more than 10 employees. Cai owns 95 percent of the firm's shares.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang reiterated yesterday that the looted sculptures were originally owned by China and that the country opposes their sale and demands their return. Qin said he learned the bidder was Chinese only on Monday after the news conference.

The National Treasures Fund was established in 2002 to repatriate looted Chinese artifacts.


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