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.
Christie's now auctions most of its Chinese art in Hong Kong, which has a separate customs and legal jurisdiction, but it also runs Forever International, a partner auction firm in Beijing, and often displays artifacts in China during pre-sale roadshows.
"It's regressive and seen as bullying tactics by a lot of people ... I can't say for sure there won't be lasting implications," added the dealer who asked not to be named.
The bronze animal heads, decapitated from their bodies, are a potent symbol of China's humiliation by Western powers during the second Opium War when British and French troops plundered the Old Summer Palace or Yuanmingyuan in 1860.
In 2000, the sale in Hong Kong of three of the 12 known bronze animal heads which once graced the emperor's zodiac fountain in the Yuanmingyuan was bluntly challenged by China and sparked protests, but the furor quickly died out after the relics were bought by China's Poly Group and repatriated home.
In 2007, Sotheby's offered the horse head as part of a "Lost Treasures" sale that narrowly averted controversy when Macau gaming tycoon Stanley Ho secured a private deal before the auction, and flamboyantly donated it to China.
Chinese art experts say the hosting of the latest bronze sales in France last month, against the backdrop of recent Sino-French tensions, along with the provocative, uncompromising stance of French seller Pierre Berge -- may have upped the ante.
Li Zhaoxing, a former Chinese foreign minister who is now the spokesman for China's parliament recently said the French seller had "hurt the dignity of a people who have never done anything to hurt the interests of your own mother-country."
Some art dealers are now monitoring whether China's current maneuvers might herald a broader shift in regulating the import and export of Chinese relics in future.
"It's only of slight concern," said Richard Littleton, an Asian art dealer based in New York. "We've had this embargo in the United State with early (Chinese) pieces and now this."
This January, China and the U.S. signed a bilateral agreement or "embargo" as it's been called by the trade -- restricting all imports of Chinese relics dating before A.D. 907, in a bid to staunch the illicit excavation and smuggling of cultural property out of China, often via blackspots like Hong Kong and Macau.
The agreement raises the possibility of further curbs, stating that in order to deter further pillage, China would "seek increased cooperation from other importing nations to restrict the import of looted archaeological material originating in China."
With countless rare Chinese antiques plundered by foreigners and now housed in leading overseas institutions in cities like Taipei, London, New York, and Paris, some experts say China might start becoming much more aggressive in pressuring governments for the return of its scattered cultural heritage.
"China hasn't started to request the foreign powers to return the relics yet," said a veteran 40-year-old collector of Chinese art in Hong Kong. "But the time will come," he added, drawing an analogy to Greece's decades-long bitter struggle to have the British Museum return the Elgin marbles taken from the Parthenon.
The head of China's cultural heritage bureau recently denied any involvement in Cai's false bid in the Paris sale, saying that he'd acted "privately." But the Foreign Ministry still maintains China has "incontrovertible ownership" of the heads.
While Chinese bloggers have enthusiastically supported efforts to get the bronzes back, some have viewed Cai's "bogus bid" as a little silly and not helpful to their recovery.
"This is just a kind of Chinese-style petty trick," wrote blogger Zhou Shoughong on the popular sina.com.cn portal.
Still, an online game dubbed "Bash Christie's" (2800.p0808.com/) urging regular Chinese netizens to hit a "Christie's" punchbag dangling under the Eiffel Tower, has now attracted hundreds of thousands of "punches'.
Five other bronze heads looted from the Summer Palace are still unaccounted for and it's unknown if they were destroyed or in private collections. Yet a pair of knockoff bronze tiger and ox heads were recently spotted lying in a dusty heap in Guangzhou's antiques market. "They're 800 yuan each," said the seller. "No discount," he added.
Reporting by James Pomfret and Ben Blanchard