It may become difficult for Chinese art collectors to bid in European auction houses in the near future. Auctioneers fear imitators of Cai Mingchao who won the bid on two Chinese sculptures at Christie’s in Paris but is refusing to pay. Each sculpture costs more than 15 million Euros. He says that after all the objects are China's property. The two sculptures were stolen in the 19th century during the Opium War. Now the discussion about looted art is picking up pace again.
Cai Mingchao refuses to pay for two bronzes
Who is the owner of looted art? There is no single, easy answer to this question. Some say stolen art pieces should be given back. But what if they were stolen over 150 years ago and then sold again and again?
Henrik Hanstein, the director of the traditional auction house Lempertz in Cologne, was at the controversial auction of French designer Yves Saint Laurent's collection in Paris last week.
“I understand that the Chinese want to get their things back. On the other hand, Yves Saint Laurent paid a lot of money and acquired the sculptures in good faith,” he said.
China is not the only nation trying to retrieve looted art. As a result, UNESCO stepped in with a convention in 1970, making it hard to sell and transport cultural property to anywhere but the country of origin. However, the convention only applies to stolen art which was acquired after 1970 and the cultural property concerned has to be officially listed.
Selling looted art still common
“Last year we sold a Chinese vase from the imperial palace for one million Euros in Cologne. The buyer was from New York so we had to ensure that the piece was not registered on an official cultural property list. It wasn't so we got permission to sell and export it to New York,” said Hanstein.
On the other hand, he likes to ensure that stolen pieces are bought by collectors from the original country - something the Chinese do a lot:
“They tried to buy back pieces from the imperial palace with the help of a third party. The Chinese followed a clever strategy and bought certain objects through art dealers, other individuals or companies. But these sculptures exceeded their budget.”
Cai Mingchao won the bid in Paris but doesn't want to pay for the bronzes depicting a rat and a rabbit. On Friday the state media confirmed that the government was not involved in the case. Insiders say that there is almost no chance the French will receive the money by starting legal proceedings.
Consequences for future auctions
For some Cai is a hero, others fear that this case will set a precedent and auctioning processes will change. “God help us if this practice becomes popular. Auction houses will surely expand their regulations for bidders before they are accredited for the auction,” Hanstein presumed.
Another way of dealing with looted art altogether is displaying as much of the art in museums as possible. “There are international initiatives such as the International Dunhuang Project - led by the British Museum - where different countries work together and I think one perspective for the future could be accepting our history and considering cultural heritage as something that belongs to everyone,” explained Adele Schlombs, director of the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne.
Still, many countries like to see their property returned as was seen in the most recent case of Mahatma Gandhi's glasses and other personal belongings that were auctioned off in New York on Thursday. The Indian billionaire who bought them announced he will hand them over to the Indian government.