In an extraordinary coda to the record-breaking "Sale of the Century", the 3 day auction extravaganza of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé held at Christie's, Paris last month, there have been some new developments involving 2 lots of Chinese bronzes.
Lot # 677 and 678 comprised two very rare and very important Qing Dynasty bronze sculptures of a rat's head and a rabbit's head that had decorated the Zodiac Fountain of the Chinese Emperor's Summer Palace in Beijing. The sculptures had been looted by invading Anglo-French forces during the Opium War in 1860 and had subsequently been purchased by Saint Laurent and Bergé as part of their art collection.
With the death of Saint Laurent last June, and the decision by his surviving partner to disperse the estate through Christie's in Paris, the shaky provenance of these two objects was exposed and the Chinese government wasted no time in contacting the auction house with an eye to repatriating the treasures. Various Chinese cultural groups joined in the fray and a motion was filed in French court to stop the sale. On February 23rd, literally hours before the auction was to start, a Paris court ruled that the sale would continue and that the defendant, Christie's, was entitled to receive compensation from the plaintiff, The Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE).
Despite protests and threats the auction went on as scheduled and was a tremendous success (See my Blog of February 27). All the publicity had generated even more curiosity and interest in these two lots with 8 confirmed "enquiries" received by Christie's before the sale. After the bidding was launched, the competition emerged between telephone bidders only - no one in the room raised a paddle. The hammer came down at nearly $18 million dollars per lot, setting yet another record breaking price in a series of superlative results.
Now comes the interesting part. On Monday, March 2, a representative of a Chinese fund for looted artworks in Beijing announced that it was indeed a Chinese bidder who won the rabbit and the rat. Shortly afterward it was announced publicly that this bidder, Cai Mingchao, a collection advisor of National Treasure Funds of China, refused to pay the €31.49 million due to Christie's! This unprecedented action leaves Christie's, indeed auction houses in general, in a very awkward spot. No client is permitted to bid at such a high level without a thorough vetting, and a bid, whether in person, on the phone, a written order or an on-line bid, is a binding contract. To bid in apparent good faith and then renege is an act of fraud with overtones of sabotage as even though these sculptures can theoretically be re-offered for sale, they are "tainted" and have probably lost some of their value on the open market.
What will happen next is a good question. The perpetrator, a 40-year-old art dealer, has become somewhat of a hero in China, but it is unlikely he can cross the French frontier without criminal charges being pressed. Pierre Bergé, a longtime critic of the Chinese government's human rights polices, has taken it as a sign that he should hold onto his beloved bronzes. Christie's is not commenting at the moment but will certainly be reviewing their vetting process! Stay tuned - this is going to be interesting!