Thursday, March 31, 2011

French auction house demands down payment before accepting "crazy" Asian bids for looted Imperial treasures

Qing scroll painting: €22.1m
It seems undertakers are not the only businesses finding it necessary to request a deposit before taking on new customers.

This week, French provincial auction house Labarbe requested a refundable down payment of €200,000 from Asian bidders seeking to compete for a Qing dynasty scroll painting at their Toulouse auction on March 26, according to my chum Scott Reyburn over at Bloomberg.

In the event, the hammer fell at €22.1 million ($31 million) to a Beijing-based collector, although whether the balance will ever be settled remains to be seen. Like so many prestigious works of Chinese art coming on the market at present, the scroll, dating from 1739, was looted from the Forbidden City in 1900. It came to market from a Parisian private collection.

Labarbe's decision to demand from bidders a cash-expressed statement of intent was prompted by the embarrassing predicament of UK-based auction house Bainbridges. Back in November last year, the Ruislip firm was bid £51.6 million ($83.2 million) by Liaoning-based real estate billionaire Wang Jianlin for a Qing dynasty vase. Bainbridges are still awaiting settlement of the account (see my earlier comments on this issue here and here.

According to Bloomberg, Mr Wang was prohibited from bidding at the Toulouse auction on account of his unpaid Ruislip bill. "I would rather have sold the scroll for 8 or 10 million euros to someone with money in the bank, rather than for a crazy price to someone I don't know," Labarbe's Asian art consultant Pierre Ansas told Bloomberg.

With a UK auctioneer reeling from an unpaid multi-million pound bid and French Asian art experts describing the hammer prices for Chinese imperial art as "crazy," one suspects it won't be long before auctioneers across Europe follow Labarbe's example and demand more rigorous credit checks from Chinese bidders seeking to reclaim their looted cultural heritage. All this comes shortly after this year's TEFAF art market report prepared by Dr Clare McAndrew, which confirmed that China has finally usurped the UK as the world's second largest art market after the US. 

Meanwhile, quite why the Parisian vendors chose to consign the Qianlong imperial scroll to the distant Toulouse auction house rather than to a Parisian firm remains unclear. Is it another indication of Paris's rapidly declining position in the global auction league?

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