Chinese art market on tenterhooks amid bronzes row

Mon Mar 9, 2009 8:26pm EDT
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By James Pomfret and Ben Blanchard

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - The heated row over Christie's sale of looted Chinese bronze animal heads in Paris is being closely watched by key art market players for possible signs of a broader fallout.

Since Christie's ignored protests from Beijing and last month auctioned off a pair of bronze rat and rabbit heads which were stolen from the Old Summer Palace in 1860, Chinese authorities have slapped strict checks on all future imports and exports by Christie's, making it potentially more difficult to source top relics.

"This will have a serious impact on Christie's development in China," the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) said in a statement, according to the official China Daily newspaper.

But in a surprise twist which has prolonged the pain for Christie's, the winning bidder turned out to be a Chinese collector with ties to a private foundation seeking to repatriate looted treasures, who joined the auction only to sabotage the sale.

Cai Mingchao, who described himself as a patriot, said he did not have the money to pay for the bronzes, nor did he have any intention of ever doing so. Christie's and Cai are now mired in an ongoing dispute.

While Chinese criticism of sales of looted relics is nothing new, the level of Beijing's rhetoric and retaliatory moves against Christie's have sparked jitters among the global Chinese art market community whose business hinges on the free movement of relics, many of which were stolen, acquired cheaply or smuggled out of China over the past century.

It's not the first time Sotheby's and Christie's have risked the wrath of Beijing, as ever more expensive and rare artifacts ranging from Ming and Qing ceramics, emperor's jade seals and unique objets d'art from the emperor's court were consigned to fuel the meteoric Chinese art market boom of the past decade.

"This time, things are different, it's very difficult to see where this will all lead," said a leading Chinese art dealer who used to work at a major auction house.   Continued...

<p>Christie's auctions a bronze rat head made for the Zodiac fountain of the Emperor Qianlong's Summer Palace in China from the private art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent at the Grand Palais Museum in Paris February 25, 2009. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau</p>