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Chinese bronze heads' winning bidder is revealed; their fate is not

An advisor to a Chinese nonprofit group dedicated to repatriating relics made the $40-million offer for the pair of heads. He says he won't pay, and that the relics should be returned to China.

March 02, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — And the bronze goes to . . . no one.

The identity of the bidder who promised to pay the estate of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent $40 million for bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat that had been looted from an imperial Chinese palace was revealed today: an advisor to a nonprofit group dedicated to repatriating missing relics.

But the winning bidder, Cai Mingchao, said he had no intention of paying for the heads, which the Chinese government maintain should be returned as stolen property.

"I must stress that I do not have the money to pay for this," said Cai, an advisor to the National Treasures Fund, which released his statement in Beijing. "I think any Chinese citizen would have stood up at that moment. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities."

The revelation seems certain to sabotage the sale by Christie's, which auctioned the heads Wednesday in Paris after Chinese lawyers failed to win an injunction from a French court to block the sale.

A bidding war conducted largely over the phone pushed the prices for the 18th century bronze heads from an expected $10 million each to $20 million each. The relics recovery fund said it had been observing the bidding and decided to bid at the last minute.

There was no immediate response from Christie's.

The bronze heads have become a cause celebre for many Chinese, who regard them as symbolic of the country's past colonial humiliation. They are part of an original set of 12, representing the Chinese zodiac signs, that graced a clock fountain at the Old Summer Palace.

The palace was sacked by British and French troops in 1860 during the second Opium War. Five of the original heads are believed destroyed and another five have been recovered by Chinese philanthropists at auctions in recent years. But this time the Chinese said they did not want to pay.

Chinese individuals have been circulating petitions on the Internet and on university campuses about the two remaining bronze heads.

Under the headline, "Raiders of the Lost Art," the state-run China Daily today quoted experts saying that all Chinese should be involved in repatriating missing treasures.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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