Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Not all Chinese back 'patriotic buyer'

March 4, 2009

Art collectors, netizens say protest bid sullies China's reputation

By Sim Chi Yin

'Rogue'. 'Conman'. 'Fool'. 'Clown'. 'Traitor'.

A day after claiming to be the mystery buyer of two controversial Qing dynasty relics - but declaring that being a patriot, he will not pay up - Chinese art dealer Cai Mingchao, 44, found himself attacked with such brickbats in Chinese cyberspace and from fellow art collectors.

Before slipping away from reporters at a bizarre press conference on Monday, Mr Cai said he had made a protest bid at last week's Paris auction and will not make good his record-setting &yen31.4 million (S$61.4 million) offer for the rat and rabbit fountainheads looted by Western soldiers from the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) almost 150 years ago.

In effect, he sabotaged the auction that Beijing and Chinese lawyers had failed to halt with official protests and an eleventh-hour legal challenge.

While many Chinese applauded Mr Cai for his audacious intervention, others slammed him for sullying China's reputation and showing the Chinese to be untrustworthy.

Art industry players said he had ruined not just his own credibility as a dealer but rattled the international art market with an unprecedented bid-as-political-protest move.

In an online poll on the semi-official China News Service website, about 22 per cent of 21,900 respondents said they disapproved of his action.

Going into the auction, Mr Cai, a known antiques collector from the southern city of Xiamen, might have felt he was riding on a wave of patriotic calls for the looted sculptures to be brought home.

Now caught on the wrong foot, he issued a statement defending his 'extraordinary measure in an extraordinary situation', to save the pair of relics from being auctioned off.

'I had the opportunity and have the ability,' Mr Cai said in a statement put out by the non-governmental China Fund for Recovering Cultural Artefacts Lost Overseas yesterday afternoon.

Back-pedalling from its earlier out-and-out patriotic stance, the group said Mr Cai would not pay up simply because the strict controls Beijing imposed on Christie's in retaliation for the sale would now mean the artefacts may not be approved by Customs. 'If those two items he had bid for cannot be imported, he, naturally, will not pay for them,' it said.

The group, which said Mr Cai has been their 'adviser' since December 2007, added: 'If we hadn't participated in the auction...the Yuanmingyuan rat and rabbit heads could have forever been lost from our sight.'

'This is not the first time a looted item has been auctioned, but we hope this will be the last,' said the group, which had in recent years worked with a state-backed company and Macau gambling king Stanley Ho to recover a few Yuanmingyuan fountainheads in a set of 12.

A Hong Kong-based Christie's spokesman said the company would not verify if Mr Cai was indeed the winning bidder or 'comment or speculate on the next steps that we might take'.

But under French auction rules, and those of Christie's, a successful bidder has seven days to pay for an item. If he does not pay up, the original owner can put it up for auction again. If the item then sells for less, the first bidder could be liable under French law to make up the difference.

With China's relics fetching ever-higher prices in auctions in recent years, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage had told Chinese collectors to break from their past practice and not use cash to bring home relics this time.

That body has distanced itself from Mr Cai's move. But at a regular press briefing yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang again called for the 'forcibly looted' fountainheads to be returned to China.

[One man can make a difference? There have been many such acts in history. Gandhi's act of civil disobedience. The Chinese man in front of the tank at Tiananmen. The Sea Shepherd (okay, not strictly one man) doggin the Japanese whaling ships and hurling rancid butter at them. But there is a difference between the first two, Gandhi & Tiananmen man, and the Sea Shepherd and Cai here. Gandhi & T-man simply did not cooperate. They put their liberty if not their lives on the line. The Sea Shepherd is an extreme example of assault on those who do not agree with them. It is beyond mere disobedience, and is terrorism or at least harassment in the name of ecology.

Cai is not as extreme as the Sea Shepherd, but his act in the name of patriotism, is unjustifiable. No lives were at risk. Not even animal life. At best he has delayed the sale, at the cost of integrity and credibility.]

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