The scene at Christie’s Saint Laurent/Bergé auction at the Grand Palais, Paris
As if coping with a severe art-market slump weren’t difficult enough, Christie’s, basking in the afterglow of its recession-defying Saint Laurent/Bergé sales, now has to contend with the brazen guerilla sabotage of the bidding for two of the sales’ star lots.
A previously reliable megabucks Chinese buyer reportedly placed the winning bids on the two bronze animal heads that had once belonged to a fountain at Beijing’s Summer Palace. He promptly reneged on the $40.24 million total purchase price, saying he did it “on
behalf of all Chinese people.”
Chinese lawyers had unsuccessfully attempted to stop the Paris sale through legal means, saying that the heads had been stolen during the 1860 looting of the palace, and should be returned.
The most detailed account of what happened and why comes from China’s Xinhua news agency, which also published photos from the brief Beijing press conference of Cai Mingchao, whose last-minute registration to bid was accepted because he was a known and trusted buyer. Cai is a collection advisor of National
Treasure Funds of China (NTFC), which is “registered under the
name of the Ministry of Culture for the purpose of repatriating looted Chinese
artifacts,” according to the Chinese news agency. He “also runs a cultural company
in Xiamen….He bought a bronze Buddha statue at a Sotheby’s
auction for 116 million Hong Kong dollars ($14.95 million) in 2006,
and brought the rare treasure back to China.“
Xinhua also reports:
An unnamed officer with NTFC said Cai successfully
registered as an individual bidder on the day of the auction at Christie’s
because of his good reputation. Usually, bidders are required to register
several days before an auction.
So much for good faith.
Interestingly, China’s official news agency did air the viewpoint of a countryman opposed to Cai’s “patriotic” action:
Gan Xuejun, general manager of Beijing Huachen
Auctions Co. Ltd., said Cai’s method of foiling the auction was improper and he
sacrificed his reputation as a well-known antiques collector.
“I’m very surprised. Cai’s reputation and future
career could be ruined. Cai made the choice in an urgent situation for the
country, but I personally do not support such behavior,” Gan told Xinhua.
Christie’s at this writing won’t comment, beyond its beside-the-point official statement:
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.
Our terms and conditions of sale are clearly set out in our catalogues
and website, and ownership of any Lot does not pass to the buyer until
full payment has been received by Christie’s. Only at this point will
the Lot be released to the buyer.
“Released to the buyer”? One can only assume that the auction house is considering enforcing its claim against Cai in court. They may also be hedging their bets by contacting any legitimate underbidders. But potential buyers might well be spooked about becoming party to an escalating international incident.
Whatever happens in this instance, the damage to the integrity of the auction process could have lasting implications. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s may need to tighten pre-auction registration procedures, especially on high-priced lots.
Before the non-sale of the Chinese bronzes came to light, the three-day series of auctions was said to have fetched $483.8 million. The winning bids for the bronze rat and rabbit are still recorded on the auction house’s website (here and here) as “Price Realized.”
They need to delete those works from the list (as they do with other works that fail to sell), or at least append a very large asterisk.
UPDATE: Mark McDonald of the NY Times weighs in from Hong Kong with more details here.