Monday, March 2, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser: Now Winning Bidder for Qing Italian Garden Sculptures Will Not Pay Up

Various news outlets are reporting that the Chinese art dealer who claims to have won the YSL Qing Italian garden sculptures is now refusing to pay for his purchase. See: and

It is unclear whether the dealer intended to deceive Christie's from the start (actionable fraud?), whether he got "cold feet," or whether he was ordered by Chinese authorities not to consummate the transaction. The dealer was apparently representing the "China Fund for Recovering Lost Cultural Artifacts Overseas." According to press reports, the China Fund may receive backing from China's ministry of culture.

I hate to add to all the confusion, but any purchase of the garden sculptures by Chinese parties intent on repatriating them to a museum in China arguably violates this provision of the recent MOU with the US:

10. Recognizing that, pursuant to this Memorandum of Understanding, museums in the United States will be restricted from acquiring certain archaeological objects, the Government of the People’s Republic of China agrees that its museums will similarly refrain from acquiring such restricted archaeological objects that are looted and illegally exported from Mainland China to destinations abroad, unless the seller or donor provides evidence of legal export from Mainland China or verifiable documentation that the item left Mainland China prior to the imposition of U.S. import restrictions. This will apply to purchases made outside Mainland China by any museum in Mainland China and only to the categories of objects representing China’s cultural heritage from the Paleolithic Period through the end of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 907), and monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old, as covered by this Memorandum of Understanding. (emphasis added.)


Presumably the bronzes, though relatively small, could be said to be part of a "monumental sculpture," the water clock, which was evidently made in the period 1756-1759, or right over the 250 year old threshold of the new restrictions. Moreover, though the buyer could prove that the artifacts were outside China before the restrictions were imposed, presumably China could not back away from its claim the sculptures were "stolen." In any event, I wonder if this has impacted the Chinese art dealer's actions in any way. All I can say is all this becomes curiouser and curiouser by the moment.


Ed Snible said...

I did not realize that official Chinese museums are forbidden to bid on objects over 250 years old. Did they ask to be forbidden or is this a boilerplate condition that gets applied when a nation asks for a MOU?

I have read about Japanese museums buying old Japanese cars that were sold abroad during the lean years and thought that was a good model -- as nations gain economic power they buy back important relics. I'm surprised the Chinese government agreed to a deal that forbid them to do this for >250yo monuments.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Ed- This is an unusual provision, but it was occasioned by complaints that the Chinese were asking US museums to forgo undocumented artifacts while Chinese museums have continued to buy such artifacts on the open market. Purchasers include the Poly Museum, which is apparently related to the People's Liberation Army in some fashion.