Monday 2 March 2009

Mandarin unbids Christies auction

Going, going but not gone

I am sure there are few who were not wide-eyed in amazement at the returns from the sale of artefacts from Yves Saint Laurent’s [1] (YSL) estate, the financial estimates were huge some people were already saying that the art world was going to shrug off [2] the credit crunch and recession.

When it comes to the return of antiquities, nothing bring focus to that issue more than when they are about to change hands and they are not going to those who lay legitimate heritage claims to them.

There are elements to the fact that YSL and his partner who is a patron of the arts were probably a tad acquisitive and his estate has turned into a treasure trove of sorts with records tumbling [3] like Chinese acrobats in one of their amazing performances.

Ratting on a rabbit

At dispute were two Chinese bronze sculptures of a heads of a rabbit and a rat (originally 12, 5 have been returned, these 2 on sale and whereabouts of the other 5 are unknown) allegedly looted from the imperial Summer [4] Palace by French and British troops towards the end of the Second Opium War in October 1860.

The Chinese authorities had remonstrated about the sale and asked for the “rightful” return of the bronzes to China and they even tried to prevent the sale of the artefacts but when the sale went ahead they threatened [5] the business of Christies [6], the auction house.

One can say that some Western businesses are well behind the curve on doing business in China [7] and have not fully understood how business and government can be conflated in one singular purpose of patriotic fervour.

That would be nothing to pay

A Chinese bidder who happens to be an adviser to China's National Treasures Fund which works on recovering looted treasures won the bidding at $19 million for each bronze sculpture to the whooping and applause of the auction attendees no doubt.

Just as the Christies might have been rubbing their hands with glee and the resulting commission the bidder has flipped a patriotic card and said he will not pay and cannot pay [8] – he has created the symbolism that the bronze sculptures cannot be sold.

Methinks Christies has been seriously wrong-footed and caught in what might even been Confucian in its origin – What you do not own, you cannot legitimately sell.

Undue diligence

How this threatens the business of Christies is myriad and could be quite damaging in that a bidder without adequate funds was able to command and win a bidding war in a reputable auction house – even if someone else had won the bidding, the thought that one of the bidders was a phony would leave bidders concerned about auctions.

Surely, if Christies had checked and verified the credentials of the bidder they should have been conscious of the possible political and sentimental twist to the issue – the Chinese demanding the return of the looted bronze would hardly be wanting to pay for what they claim is legitimately theirs.

It all also smacks of the phony and fraudulent schemes that have become reminiscent of our financial services where mythical reputations serve as fronts for nefarious deals which unwittingly entice people into transactions they should never engage in. Due diligence, is that now so foreign to business transactions?

This enterprise despite its patriotic undertone is no less fraudulent and it shows that anyone is capable of large scale fraud especially where the gullible meets the crafty.

It would all end badly

Much as Christies and the French courts might term the sale legal, it is unlikely that any money would exchange hands, the bidder would most likely have the full support of his government such that the legal wrangle would just sap Christies of requisite enterprising energy to weather the global financial crisis.

This is a major embarrassment for Christies as they scramble to preserve their reputation as a dependable auction house despite their other successes.

There is no telling the public relations nightmare that might ensue as researchers dig out details of how less powerful lobby groups and countries have been unable to prevent sales of their relics in Western auction houses.

Any customer would well be wary of any heirloom that seems to have a suspect provenance even if the claims go back over a century.

The bigger lesson is doing business with China is probably straight forward but when a tinge of sentiment borne of heritage is added to the mix, it is a high wire act without nets – he who walks the wire might well end up splat on the ground.

Do not run the gauntlet of mandarins, you might get seriously hurt.


[1] Yves Saint Laurent (designer) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[2] Record-breaking YSL art auction shrugs off crisis | Reuters

[3] Records tumble at YSL sale - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

[4] Old Summer Palace - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[5] China Gets Tough With Christie's - - Magazine Article

[6] Christie's - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[7] Understanding Chinese business culture and etiquette

[8] BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | China relics buyer refuses to pay

Chinese bidder of looted sculptures refuses to pay _English_Xinhua

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