Changing China

Giant on the move

To the highest bidder?

March 4, 2009

   By Ben Blanchard
   The fate of two bronze statues looted from China in the 1800s — and which were bought at a Paris auction this week by an anonymous buyer for $20 million each — has sparked intense public interest in China.

   Thanks to a tip, Reuters was the only foreign media to learn about a hastily called news conference on Monday in Beijing where the buyer promised to make a statement.

    All was revealed as the organisers of the event, a Chinese foundation that  seeks to recover cultural artifacts, identified the buyer as a well-known collector named Cai Mingchao.
    Then came the surprise: Cai stood up, made a brief statement about how he had no intention of paying the hefty sums he’d pledged for the bronzes, and described his move as an act of patriotism.

    Having derailed the Christie’s auction, and provided more questions than answers, he then promptly vanished out of a side door, leaving behind a mad scramble of reporters rushing to ask him questions.
    Three other members of the foundation were left behind, and we surrounded them to ask the most pressing question: What would happen now? And would the bronzes be able to return to China?

    Despite our curiosity, they only said they would let us know when there were new developments, repeating that the bronzes would not be paid for.

    China maintains that the historic bronzes — stolen from Beijing’s Summer Palace when French and British forces razed it in 1860 — should be rightfully returned.

    The auction has prompted angry denunciations from the Chinese government, and outraged citizens have turned to blogs to vent their anger.

    But others have raised questions about the latest twist, slamming the “bogus bid” as a little silly and not helpful to the bronzes’ recovery.
    “This is just a kind of Chinese-style petty trick,” wrote blogger Zhou Shoughong on the popular portal .
    Some have questioned the value of the bronzes. Others said the hype over the treasures had served only to boost their value, as they are only some 200 years old and in the broader scheme of China’s millennial culture should not be considered that valuable.
    “Chinese people always think that they absolutely have to go after them, so their fame has been raised up as has their value,” wrote a blogger who used the screen name “Teacher Feng“.
    But with neither side budging, and Christie’s so far not saying what will happen next with the auction process, it seems unlikely the bronzes will be coming back to China anytime soon.

Photo Caption: Christie’s auctions a bronze rat head made for Chinese Emperor Qianlong’s Summer Palace, from the private art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in Paris Feb. 25, 2009. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

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