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Auction man: Hero or hooligan?

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Cai Mingchao, speaking on 2 March 2009
Chinese art expert Cai Mingchao's actions have divided his fellow citizens

The Chinese art expert who made a bogus bid for two looted sculptures has received both praise and criticism from his compatriots.

Some called Cai Mingchao a hero, but others said his actions were pointless.

Mr Cai successfully bid for the two bronze sculptures - of the heads of a rat and a rabbit - at an auction held by Christie's in Paris last week.

But he then said he would not hand over the 15m euros ($19m; 13m) he had offered for each piece.

Beijing had tried to stop the sale going ahead, saying the relics were looted 150 years ago and should be in a museum.

China Daily, the country's state-run English language newspaper, applauded Mr Cai's attempt to "thwart the sale".

In a front-page headline it said he was "a collector and a patriot".

Internet sites were buzzing with chat about Mr Cai. One forum, sina.com, asked if he was a patriot or the perpetrator of a farce.

"Everyone should respect what Mr Cai did for Chinese people," read an internet posting from one of those who supported the bid.

HAVE YOUR SAY
I'm very glad Mr Cai did what he did...he has raised awareness of the importance that Chinese citizens place on their history
Shawn Han, Shanghai

Another commentator, writing in the Beijing News, also lavished praised on the bogus bidder for blocking the sale of the sculptures.

"Cai Mingchao's bid was a patriotic political act to strike back at an illegal auction," said Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Central Socialist Academy.

He told the newspaper that the art expert had not caused any trouble because the Chinese government did not recognise the legality of the sale.

'Hooligan'

But in its extensive coverage of the incident, the Beijing News acknowledged that Mr Cai could be banned from taking part in future international auctions.

The bronze rat and the bronze rabbit

"Furthermore, there will be problems when he goes to European Union countries in the future," an auction expert told the newspaper.

There were those that criticised Mr Cai. One internet user described the art expert's bid for the statues as "laughable".

"What's the point of doing this? Christie's can just auction them again," he wrote.

Another said: "It's despicable and immature of Cai Mingchao to claim he is patriotic. In front of the whole world, he made a bid like a hooligan."

The two sculptures were looted from Beijing's former imperial Summer Palace in 1860 by British and French troops.

They were sold by Christie's along with other items from the personal collection of the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

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