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'Patriot' in bronzes bid called into question

THE head of China's cultural heritage bureau yesterday denied government involvement in the bidding for two looted Chinese relics at Christie's auction in Paris last week and also cast doubt on the reason given by the winning bidder for why he failed to follow through with the purchase.

"The bidding was completely personal," said Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Shan said the cultural heritage department had no idea who was behind the winning offer until the bidder identified himself on Monday.

China tried repeatedly to dissuade Christie's from auctioning the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bronze rabbit and rat heads sculptures, which were looted from Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860. But the efforts failed.

The winning bid for the two relics totaled 31.49 million euros (US$39.6 million). In response to the sale, China's cultural heritage authorities ordered strict checks of all exports and imports by Christie's in China.

On Monday, Cai Mingchao, a Chinese antiques collector, identified himself as the winning bidder and said he would not pay for the items. At first, he said his involvement was a patriotic act. But he later said he would not follow through because the relics might not be able to enter China following SACH's strict checks.

Shan, however, said the new order applies only to relics that Christie's submitted to Chinese cultural departments for entry or exit inspections and does not limit the return of looted artifacts.

Shan also denied reports that Christie's suggested that the Chinese government buy the two relics at a low price. Christie's did say it was willing to cooperate with the Chinese government, but it never offered a bargain sale to China, Shan said.

The auction triggered wide protest in China. But Christie's argued that the Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation held legal ownership of the fountainheads.

SACH said China would not accept what it called the illegal possession of the bronzes and would "continue to seek the return of the sculptures by all means in accord with related international conventions and Chinese laws."

Even though efforts to stop the auction failed, Shan said the campaign aroused public concern over the retrieval of lost cultural relics and would have a positive effect on similar efforts in the future.

He said China will improve the protection and management of cultural relics and tighten border control to prevent important artifacts from being illegally taken out of the country.


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