More records expected as China keeps close watch on auction market

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Spurred on by record sales in April, two major art and antique events will next month attempt to cash in on a burgeoning market for Chinese artifacts. But there has also never before been so much interest in exactly where the objects come from, either.

International auction house Christie's holds its spring sales ( from May 28 - with online bidding available to international buyers - but first the Asia International Arts & Antiques Fair ( runs from May 21- 23 at Hong Kong's AsiaWorld Expo site, billing itself as the "largest arts and antiques fair in Asia-Pacific."

At the start of April, auction house Sotheby's collected US$256 million (190 million euros) for a six-day sale of art, jewelry and wine - a record for Hong Kong, a city that now ranks just behind New York and London in terms of overall auction turnovers.

Among the items sold by Sotheby's was a white jade imperial seal from the Qianlong period (1735-1796) which fetched a world record $12.3 million (nine million euros) for a jade seal.

"What made this sale series groundbreaking in many ways was the growing involvement and participation by mainland Chinese,'' Kevin Ching, chief executive of Sotheby's Asia, told reporters afterwards.

And as Chinese buyers increase their influence on the world's auction markets so too Chinese authorities are increasing their work in tracking down cultural relics - and then bringing them back home.

A report by the state-run news agency Xinhua this week quoted a Chinese official as saying more effort would be made in finding "national treasures.''

"Any auction of Chinese cultural relics is immoral and will hurt our people's feelings,'' said Zhang Jianhua, an official with China's Policies and Regulations Department, which comes under the umbrella of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH).

SACH itself has estimated that there are 1.67 million Chinese relics in 2,000 museums worldwide, most of them stolen from the country during wars.

The issue of stolen relics came to a head last year when Christie's sold 14 million euros of Chinese relics to anonymous telephone bidders last year, among them items stolen from Beijing's Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War against Anglo-French forces in 1860.