Chinese art auction stunt backfires

Bid rival planned to return sculptures to China

By Andrew Johnson

The Chinese businessman who sabotaged the controversial Paris sale of two sculptures claimed by the Beijing government from Yves Saint Laurent's art collection last week may have had the best of intentions. But in preventing the sale as a "political protest", Cai Mingchao may well have shot himself in the foot.

According to an art expert, the businessman who Mr Cai beat at the record-breaking Christie's auction to secure the Qing dynasty bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit was planning to give them back to China.

The two sculptures were part of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's art collection, which was sold in Paris last week. Their sale had angered Beijing, which argued that as the works were looted in 1860, they should be returned to China.

China's government had asked collectors not to bid on the bronze heads – originally part of a collection of 12 animal heads depicting the signs of the Chinese zodiac at the Summer Palace outside Beijing, which was destroyed and looted by British and French troops during the opium wars.

On the third day of the Saint Lauren auction, which raised a total of £307m, three businessmen became locked in a tussle for the bronze heads, which were eventually sold to Mr Cai for £13.9m each.

Once he was safely out of France, however, Mr Cai, general manager of the Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Company in Fujian province in south-eastern China, announced that he wasn't going to pay for the heads as a political protest.

In one online poll in China, Mr Cai's action was supported by 70 per cent of respondents, although the Chinese government has distanced itself, saying "it was totally the action of an individual".

France's complex laws mean that Christie's cannot simply pass the sculptures on to the next highest bidder. Pierre Bergé, the lover of Yves Saint Laurent who decided to sell the collection after the fashion designer's death last year, has said he will now keep them. Mr Bergé had poured oil on the row with China when he said he would return the sculptures once China gave "Tibet its freedom".

Writing in The Economist this week, however, Sarah Thornton, an art market expert, claimed that at least one of the under-bidders, who offered £10.7m for the heads, was intending to give one of them back to the Chinese as a gift. It is possible that the other under-bidder may also have been intending to give one or both statues to the Chinese. Someone with such wealth is likely to be a businessman with interests in China.

Ms Thornton said: "The consensus among art historians is that the heads are not aesthetically significant, so connoisseurs of Chinese art are not dying to collect them. Their importance is symbolic and political. For that reason, it's possible that both under-bidders intended to gift them."

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