LONDON, March 2, 2009— -- Late French designer Yves Saint Laurent's two bronze sculptures went up for auction at Christie's last week. The highest bidder has been revealed: Cai Mingchao.
But Cai, who bid nearly $40 million by phone last week, has no intention of paying.
Cai is a member of China's Lost Cultural Relics Foundation, a group trying to stop the auction and reclaim the two relics, which were once housed in Beijing's Old Summer Palace.
The Chinese say the bronze rat and rabbit heads were stolen during the second Opium War in 1860 when British and French troops looted and then burned down the imperial palace.
Today, during a news conference in Beijing, Cai Mingchao explained himself. "We have stood up, and thankfully I was given this opportunity, which I felt was my responsibility, and what I want to stress is that I will not pay for this bid."
The revelation marks yet another chapter in what has been a fierce opposition by the Chinese to the sale of the relics. Chinese media and online forums are aflame with passionate sentiment. In one survey, 89 percent of those who responded said the relics belong to China and should not be auctioned. One headline in the state-run China Daily newspaper called the perpetrators "Raiders of the Lost Art."
Not since the interruption of the Olympic torch relay in Paris has there been such nationalist sentiment and outrage. Petitions have been circulated online and on school campuses. Some Chinese Netizens are calling for boycotts of French products. There have been several daily reports here on the story, focusing on the progress of about 80 lawyers who were collaborating to stop the auction, some who traveled to Paris.
The lawyers' suit was denied by a Paris court and the auction went on as planned. China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage issued a statement warning Christie's that the action will have "serious effects on Christie's development in China."
Protests spread to Los Angeles when the American Chinese Collector's Association and the Eastern Cultural Foundation issued an open letter, appealing to Chinese collectors and art dealers to stop doing business with Christie's.
Five of 12 Animal Heads Have Been Returned to China
Many Chinese see the bronze head as a symbol of the country's past humiliation. Typical of the on-the-street opinion was that of Kang Ming who told ABC News, "I think every Chinese looking at this situation, this kind of blatant colonialist thinking makes us all angry. So everybody feels like they have a little responsibility for something they need to do."
So far, five of the 12 bronze animal heads, which represent the Chinese zodiac signs, have been returned to China. Some were purchased at auctions and then donated.
There was no immediate word from Christie's about what happens next. Cai, a well-known buyer on the international scene and manager of an auction company here, is unlikely to be sued by Christie's. The bronze heads will likely be sold to the second highest bidder.
In a country that suffered through the Cultural Revolution, when much of its most valuable art was destroyed, it is not surprising that they are fighting so hard to have the bronze rat and rabbit returned.
Alexandra Buxton, Christie's representative in London, told ABC News that Christie's is "aware of today's news reports. As a matter of policy, we do not comment on the identity of our consignors or buyers, nor do we comment or speculate on the next steps that we might take in this instance."