China to Christie’s: You’ll Pay Too

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As part of the giant Yves Saint Laurent auction that Christie’s has just wrapped up in Paris, that pair of Qing Dynasty bronze animal heads sold for a combined $40 million. Those are the heads that were looted by French and British troops who ransacked the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860. Before the sale, the Chinese government had demanded their return — in vain. But it turns out that Beijing has ways to retaliate — by turning the screws on Christie’s operations in China. Bloomberg is reporting that the Chinese have decided to start giving more intense scrutiny to the ownership history of objects sold by Christie’s, with the implied threat of not issuing export licenses for pieces that don’t pass the test. Obviously that could push nervous buyers to take their business to Sotheby’s.

It’s still not known who bought the heads via telephone bid. If it was Stanley Ho, the Hong Kong casino mogul who bought one a few years ago in a private sale, then returned it to China, he probably wasn’t happy this time. He reportedly paid $9 million back then. The Saint Laurent heads went for $20 million each.

As for the sale as a whole, it brought in a total of $477 million, including a mystifying $28 million for a circa-1918 Eileen Gray leather chair. For that money you could close the budget gap of most of the struggling museums in North America. I guess that’s what people mean by the genius of the market.