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March 2nd, 2009
Chinese Man Sabotages Christie's Auction

Jeff Seelbach

A Chinese man who claims to have been the anonymous highest bidder on two Qing Dynasty sculptures at a Paris auction now says that he will not pay the money. The Chinese government says that the bronze artifacts were stolen and should be repatriated, and it appears that Cai Mingchao, the supposed buyer, disrupted their sale in a crafty bit of auction sabotage.

Mingchao is affiliated with a government-supported organization that seeks to retrieve stolen Chinese artifacts, and he says that his anonymous and fake phone bid was a patriotic act. “I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment,” he said. “I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” The hijinx teaches a lesson that the French should be familiar with: beware of unknown phone callers.

The sculptures, of the heads of a rabbit and a rat, were part of the private collection of the late iconic fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre BergĂ©, and fetched 15.8 million euros ($20.3 million) each at the Christie’s auction. The pair were originally part of the Zodiac Fountain of the Emperor Quianlong’s Summer Palace outside Beijing. Dating from the 18th century, they disappeared around 1860, when British and French soldiers attacked and looted the palace. The fountain originally included twelve heads, seven of which have been found, and five of which have been returned to China.

The Chinese government tried to shut down the auction entirely, but a French court denied their claim.

Eminent cultural ambassador Jackie Chan rose to China’s defense, saying, “This behavior is shameful….It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today.” In a handy bit of cross-promotion, Chan also happens to be working on a film about the theft of cultural relics. If I were to pick someone to defend my national honor, Chan would be a good candidate.

In response to China’s criticism, BergĂ© retorted, “I’m absolutely ready to give the two heads to China. The only thing I ask is for China to give human rights, liberty to Tibet and to welcome the Dalai Lama.” Ouch. Kinda seems like apples and oranges to me, but at this point, who’s counting?

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