Home News Praise, criticism for Chinese who bid for looted bronzes

Praise, criticism for Chinese who bid for looted bronzes

Published on 03/03/2009

BEIJING – An antiques collector who apparently sabotaged a Paris auction of two Chinese relics earned praise in China Tuesday as a patriot but also criticism for sullying the nation's reputation.

In the state-controlled media and on the more liberal Internet, debate raged over 44-year-old Cai Mingchao’s decision to bid successfully for the bronze animal heads, only to declare that he would not pay for them.

"A collector and a patriot," the English-language China Daily called him on its front page.

A vote on the website of China News Service, a news agency under the control of the cabinet, showed 8,347, or 63 percent, in favour of Cai’s action.

At the other end of the spectrum, Cai was branded a con man and misguided.

"There are many ways to love your country. But you absolutely cannot use trust to cheat people," said one entry on the popular Baidu website.

Zhao Yu, a senior culture ministry official, told the Beijing Times that Cai’s behaviour during and after last week’s Christie’s auction had done his compatriots no favour.

"In overseas auctions… bidders usually need no deposit and simply rely on their reputation," said Zhao.

"The fact that Cai Mingchao has gone back on his word in reality means he has undermined the credibility enjoyed by Chinese people at large international auctions."

The two bronze heads were looted from an imperial palace in Beijing at the end of the second Opium War in 1860, which remains a potent focus for nationalist sentiment in China.

The bronzes, part of the art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, sold for EUR 15.7 million each at the Christie’s auction in Paris.

Chinese authorities had repeatedly demanded the sale not go ahead, and angry reaction from government officials after they were sold featured prominently in the domestic media until Cai’s admission Monday.

However, it remained unclear Tuesday whether Cai, a wealthy antiques dealer with a history of paying millions of dollars for Chinese artefacts, would indeed renege on the deal.

He has until Wednesday to pay and neither he nor the organisation backing him, the National Treasures Fund, would comment.

China Daily said the decision to back out of the sale could be expensive for Cai. It quoted a legal expert as saying he could be asked to pay the commission on the sale, estimated at EUR 7 million.

"Theoretically, Cai is required to pay for the auction objects at the price agreed," Wang Fenghai, chief lawyer at the China Association of Auctioneers, told China Daily.

"In case (he fails to do that), he is supposed to bear liabilities for default or, with the consent of the ex-owner, Christie’s may put the items up for auction again."

The Chinese foreign ministry Tuesday denied any involvement in the much-publicised case.

"As for the involvement of relevant individuals in the auction of the bronze sculptures, I personally, and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, knew nothing about it," ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters.

"Therefore, I will not comment on this unofficial behaviour."

Meanwhile, millions of Chinese were left pondering the merits of Cai’s actions.

"It was Christie’s that started violating the rules," said Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Central Socialist Academy, according to Beijing News.

"Why should we be just if others are not? Cai Mingchao has performed a patriotic political act to strike back at an illegal auction."

But Liang Fafu, a blogger, said Cai had made the Chinese "look even worse on the international scene."

"We come across as untrustworthy people, a bunch of con men. Who wants to deal with that kind of people in the future?"

AFP / Expatica