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WARSAW, Poland – Anette Mattsson had bid 200,000 euros ($226,500) for a prized gray Arabian mare but soon stopped. With the price rising rapidly and no sign of other bidders, she sensed that something strange was going on at the annual Pride of Poland sale on Aug. 14.
Mattsson, a Swedish breeder with 27 years of auction experience, was not alone in suspecting something was off in the bidding for a purebred Arabian named Emira. In the week since, the sale has become a political scandal, making Emira a household name and prompting calls for a criminal investigation.
Whatever truly happened, the suspicions have dealt a blow to the reputation of an Arabian horse breeding program considered among the best in the world and which many Poles cherish as a national treasure.
Many people suspect that someone made fake bids to drive prices higher at the auction on the famed Janow Podlaski stud farm, a state-run enterprise in eastern Poland, an allegation the authorities strongly deny. Those who suspect wrongdoing believe that state officials would have acted to ensure a successful auction, which was considered a major test of new management.
After Mattsson pulled out, Emira's price kept rising, finally declared as sold for 550,000 euros. Unlike the other sales that evening, no buyer was identified. At the end of the auction, Emira was brought back and put up for sale again.
Mattsson said she saw that coming. Following her first, failed bid, a bid taker asked her how much she would pay for the mare.
"I said, 'well, you sold her.' He said again, 'how much are you willing to pay for Emira?'" Mattsson recalled.
Eventually she and another Polish official agreed on 200,000 euros and shook hands, only for him to back out a short while later. The mare was put up for auction again.
Mattson then placed the top bid, 225,000 euros, for a client in Qatar.
"Now people are saying that Polish sales are fake," said George Zbyszewski, the manager of Hennessey Arabians in Ocala, Florida. "This sale lost the stud's reputation. It was destroyed in one evening."
The program was fighting for its reputation after a political purge of three top breeders in February by the country's new right-wing government. Power shifts in Poland typically bring management changes in state enterprises, but the firing of the breeders was extremely controversial because it hit three respected professionals — Marek Trela, Jerzy Bialobok and Anna Stojanowska — who had worked for many years on the farms and produced world-class horses sought out by celebrities, Arab sheikhs and other millionaires.
Trela, the manager of Janow Podlaski, was initially replaced by a ruling party loyalist who lacked experience with horses but said, "I feel it will be my new hobby." Amid uproar over that appointment, Slawomir Pietrzak, whose expertise is in sports horses, was installed as manager in June.
One order of business for Pietrzak was apologizing to British breeder Shirley Watts, wife of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who had two of four mares on loan to Poland die after the management change.
Mattsson told The Associated Press that she believes "foul play" was involved at the auction. She couldn't tell who else was bidding for Emira, considered the best of 31 horses up for sale that evening.
"People at my table were getting up and looking to see who was bidding," Mattsson said. "Even if a person bidding is silent you can always see the ringmaster focused on the table where the bids are coming from. I didn't see any another bidder so I started to question if there even was one."
The 16-year-old mare was considered the superstar of the auction and officials had set a reserve, or minimum price, of 700,000 euros. The reserve price is usually kept secret but the auctioneer let it slip out. It's not clear why the authorities accepted so much less.
After the sale, the state official in charge of the auction, Karol Tylenda, called Emira an "old mare" and said they were lucky to have sold her given problems she has had with foaling.
Tylenda later apologized, attributing his words to his emotions. In the following days he declared the auction a success and then stepped down, though denying that was connected to the scandal.
Pietrzak, the stud farm manager, told the AP that the authorities did not engage in any kind of fraud, and blamed the auctioneer, an American, for declaring Emira sold when there was no apparent buyer. "We are absolutely not guilty," Pietrzak said.