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YSL's Winning Chinese Bidder Won't Pay Up

Buyer of controversial relics at Paris art auction holds press conference.

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The rat and rabbit bronze fountainheads

The rat and rabbit Qing dynasty fountainheads which sold for a record $40 million.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

BEIJING — In the latest twist in the tale of two relics sold during last week’s historic Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé art sale in Paris, a Chinese collector on Monday revealed he had bought the Qing dynasty fountainheads — but he doesn’t plan to pay for them.

Cai Mingchao, a consultant for China’s National Treasure Fund, an organization created to buy back looted and stolen relics, said at a press conference here that he was the mystery telephone bidder who last week acquired the two 18th-century bronze sculptures for 15.7 million euros, or $20.3 million at current exchange, each.

Cai said he won’t pay — possibly nullifying the contentious sale that his institution, plus people from the Chinese foreign ministry, various arts organizations and even action hero Jackie Chan — had protested against. The rat and rabbit sculptures were two of 12 fountainheads taken by Anglo-French forces from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing during the Opium War from 1839 to 1842.

“What I want to stress today is that the money cannot be paid,” said Cai, according to a transcript of the conference. “Every Chinese person would have liked to do like this at that moment, and I’m honored to have the chance to make the bid.”

Christie’s declined Monday to confirm or deny Cai’s claims. “We are aware of today’s news reports,” the auction house stated. “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.”

Speaking on the French radio station France Info Monday, Bergé, for his part, expressed little surprise at the latest development, noting China had seemed willing to go to any lengths to recover the heads. If they are not paid for, Bergé said he would simply keep them himself.

The rat and rabbit far exceeded their presale estimation of 8 million to 10 million euros, or $10.2 million to $12.7 million. They figured among the top 10 sales of the entire 700-piece Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection. Meanwhile, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage declared last week the sale had caused “serious damage to Chinese people’s cultural rights, interests and national sentiments,” and warned of repercussions for Christie’s operations in China.

Bidders, who are required to provide detailed bank information, have seven days to settle their payments. The two bronze heads were bid for last Wednesday.