Monday, March 2, 2009
Are we entering the era of guerilla activism in cultural heritage?
So, Cai Mingchao (left), who claims to be the winning bidder on the Qing Dynasty rat and rabbit heads from the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé collection at Christie's in Paris last week, turns out to be an adviser to the foundation in China that seeks to retrieve looted cultural heritage. Cai is refusing to pay for the bronzes, according to the Reuters news agency (reporting here).
Are we entering an era of guerilla activism, where sabotage of art auctions becomes another weapon in cultural heritage repatriation disputes?
Last October, Cai Mingchao — the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. — was among the buyers at Sotheby's sale of Chinese art in Hong Kong, according to William Verdult. After the sale Cai told reporters, "The purchases are as much about patriotism as a love of art ... Many of us just want these Chinese treasures to come home,'' thereby demonstrating the nationalist fervour driving Chinese cultural heritage claims.
There has been much talk this week, following the Bergé auction, of the possibility of China looking to the law as a means of pressing for return of its treasures. This would be a mistake, successful Italian cultural lawsuits notwithstanding.
But what chance cultural diplomacy, particularly where a still bloated art market is involved?
Evidently the Zodiac rat and rabbit heads in dispute are still in Paris. It is highly unlikely that Christie's would have released them without payment — or at least some form of down payment. The auction house made a number of significant loans to buyers at last week's sale, but it would be surprising if they did so in this case.
It could, of course, turn out to be another grand publicity stunt by the Chinese. Either way it's going to be fascinating to see how this one plays out.
Picture of Cai Mingchao above: REUTERS/Christina Hu