BEIJING – A Chinese man said Monday he was the mystery collector behind winning bids for two imperial bronzes auctioned at Christie's over Beijing's objections, and that he made the bogus offers to protest any sale of the looted relics.
Auction house owner Cai Mingchao said he made the $36 million bid for the bronze rat and rabbit heads by telephone last week when the pieces were auctioned in Paris as part of a collection owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent.
"What I need to stress is that this money cannot be paid," Cai told a news conference in Beijing. "At the time, I was thinking that any Chinese would do this if they could. ... I only did what I was obliged to."
The Chinese government had attempted to halt the sale of the relics, saying they should be returned, not sold.
However, the government denied having anything to do with the fake bid.
The dispute underscores the challenges China faces in trying to recover numerous cultural objects stolen more than a century ago, when plunder was a given in warfare. Failed official protests against similar auctions have prompted state-owned companies and rich Chinese individuals to step in to buy the pieces.
The sculptures disappeared from the Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing when French and British forces sacked and burned it at the end of the second Opium War in 1860. Chinese view the devastation of the palace — the country residence of emperors full of art treasures — as a national humiliation.
In a statement, Christie's said: "We are aware of today's news reports. 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."
Cai, an art collector and expert on relics, is the owner of Xinheart, an auction company in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. He also serves as an adviser to China's Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program, a non-governmental body dedicated to repatriating looted Chinese art. His fake bid was apparently done in cooperation with the group.
"This is an extraordinary method taken in an extraordinary situation, which successfully stopped the auction," said the program's vice director, Niu Xianfeng at the news conference.
China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage had earlier put out a statement discouraging private collectors from buying the pieces and returning them to China.
The administration said Monday it was not aware of the bogus bid, according to a woman who answered the phone at the administration who declined to give her name in line with official policy.
China had angrily protested plans to auction off the relics, but Christie's stood by its right to sell them. A French court rejected a legal challenge by a Chinese group calling for the sale to be stopped.
The sculptures date to the early Qing Dynasty, established by invading Manchu tribesmen in 1644. The Christie's catalog said they were made for the Zodiac fountain at the imperial palace.
Christie's three-day sale of Saint Laurent's collection brought a total of more than 373 million euros ($484 million) and set a world record for the most valuable private collection sold at auction.
Pierre Berge, the longtime partner of the French fashion icon and co-owner of the collection, suggested before the auction that China could have the bronzes if it improved its human rights record — an idea Beijing dismissed as "ridiculous."