A Chinese art collector revealed himself as the man behind the winning bids for two imperial bronzes auctioned at Christie's over Beijing's objections, then announced he had no intention of paying the $36 million.
The audacious act of commercial sabotage exposes the tensions China and other countries, such as Greece and Egypt, face in trying to recover cultural objects plundered in war or stolen. One overseas expert in looted relics called the fake bids "brilliant" - a ploy likely to be copied in future disputed sales.
The bogus bids were the latest attempt by both the Chinese government and private citizens to block the sale of the pieces, which disappeared when French and British forces sacked and burned the imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing in 1860 at the end of the second Opium War. Chinese view the devastation of the palace as a national humiliation.
Auction house owner Cai Mingchao said Monday he put in telephone bids for the bronze rat and rabbit heads - part of a collection owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent - during last week's auction in Paris. The three-day sale set a record for the most valuable private collection sold at auction, bringing more than $484 million.
"What I need to stress is that this money cannot be paid," Cai told a news conference in Beijing. "At the time, I was thinking that any Chinese would do this if they could ... I only did what I was obliged to."