BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese art collector identified himself on Monday as the winning bidder in last week’s Paris auction for two sculptures looted from Beijing in the 1800s but said that, as a patriot, he had no intention of paying.
Christie‘s, which had triggered Chinese anger by holding the sale, would not say what action it would take against the bidder, only that the bronze sculptures of the heads of a rat and a rabbit would not be released until it had been paid.
Cai Mingchao, a collector and adviser to a private foundation in China that seeks to retrieve looted treasures, said he successfully bid for the items which sold for 15 million euros ($20 million) each at an auction for the art collection of late designer Yves Saint Laurent.
But Cai said the relics should not have been put up for sale as they had been stolen from Beijing’s Summer Palace, which was razed in 1860 by French and British forces.
“I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities,” said Cai, who in 2006 paid more than HK$100 million ($13 million) for a gold Buddha statue at an auction in Hong Kong.
A spokeswoman for Christie’s in Hong Kong said lots were not released until the balance of payment had been received but the auction house declined to comment on any action it might take.
“We are aware of today’s news reports,” a London-based spokesperson said, in emailed comments.
“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on the identity of our consignors or buyers, nor do we comment or speculate on the next steps that we might take in this instance.”
Saint Laurent’s partner Pierre Berge, who angered Beijing by declaring before the sale that he would return the bronzes if China allowed the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to return home, brushed the controversy aside.
“They couldn’t get them back. So I imagine they put pressure on a buyer,” he told France Info radio, adding that if the buyer did not pay, he would not get the bronzes.
“I’ll keep them at my place,” he said. “We will continue to live together in my home.”
The foundation advised by Cai, formally called the China Fund for Recovering Cultural Artifacts Lost Overseas, says on its website (www.relicsrecovery.org) that it was set up in 2002 in Beijing by a group of academics and “prominent people.”
A spokesman for China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage said the government body was unaware of Cai’s news conference and added that the foundation was not affiliated to the government.
Before the auction, France was already the target of Chinese public ire because President Nicolas Sarkozy had met the Dalai Lama. The contention over the looted bronzes added to that anger.
A spokesman for the French Embassy in Beijing said he had not heard of Monday’s news conference and could not comment.
Some online commentators had said China should not seek to buy the sculptures, as that would add to the insult.
“Everyone knows that the related objects were plundered by the joint Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War and are precious artifacts which have been overseas for many years,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a news briefing last month.
Five other bronze heads looted from the Summer Palace are still unaccounted for and it is unknown if they were destroyed or in private collections.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Ian Ransom, James Pomfret in Hong Kong and James Mackenzie in Paris; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeremy Laurence