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Hype over bronze bidder plays into the hands of auction houses
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The winning Chinese bidder for the two looted Old Summer Palace bronze heads at Christie's was hailed by the Chinese press on Monday as a patriot, for he refuses to pay.

Explaining his decision, bidder Cai Mingchao said: "Given the circumstances, any Chinese person would have stood up ... I was merely fulfilling my responsibility."

These highly suggestive remarks leave ample room for imagination and interpretation.

His new tale is less inspiring, but more creditable.

Cai's new revelation is that he refused to pay the winning bid of US$40 million for the two bronze sculptures at Christie's because the two auction items cannot legally be brought into China.

After the auction ended late on February 25, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage issued a circular requiring that all Christie's items being shipped into and out of China should be legally obtained.

There arises the obvious difficulty for Cai to receive the items.

A businessman may make a profit while being patriotic.

But how to distinguish patriotism from myriad other motivations can be a matter of delicacy.

Especially when playing the patriotism card can help business.

The abrupt twist in the tale also suggests the media's eagerness to read too much into an otherwise simple (albeit frowned-upon) business transaction.

In an age of instant copying and transmission, content creators often have little patience to investigate. In these circumstances, lies have a better chance of multiplying, because they often generate more clicks.

But the media was definitely not the big winner in this controversial auction °?- the bronze owner is.

First of all, the media play-up dramatically increases the value of the items in question.

According to one expert, as recently as 20 years ago, some stolen bronze heads belonging to the same set of the Chinese zodiac's 12 animals in the palace were used as simple ornaments in the bathrooms of some American homes.

They were priced then at no more than US$1,500.

Thanks to the marketing effort of auction houses, their prices have since soared.

The spate of media reports about the auction has given the auction house and the owner of the stolen items a degree of publicity no amount of advertising can equal.

Cai himself was an owner of an auction house in China, and he cannot be totally ignorant of the mysterious forces that drive the art-collection market.

Two years ago Cai had paid Sotheby's a record HK$116.6 million (US$15 million) for a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Buddha sculpture. It would be interesting to know its valuation today.

As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, "Over the past few years, the world's chief auction houses like Christie's poured millions of marketing dollars into salesrooms and art categories to persuade newly wealthy bidders in emerging markets like Asia, Russia and the Middle East to buy back their national treasures."

The exorbitant prices for artifacts also gives tomb raiders and other thieves more incentive to ply a profitable business.

Some experts agree that these bronze heads - parts of a fountain in the imperial palace designed by Italians about 200 years ago - are looted artifacts that remind us of China's humiliating past.

But there are many ways to remember our past.

In our hectic fever for growth, we are erasing vestiges of our past at an alarming rate.

If you look at the fast-diminishing ancient dwelling places and lanes overshadowed by skyscrapers, you might realize that some relics are more at stake than the two bronze heads.

(Shanghai Daily March 5, 2009)

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