A Chinese antique collector said on Monday he was the mystery buyer who placed the winning bid for two bronze relics at a Paris auction last week, but that he would not pay for them.
The announcement was the latest twist to a 150-year-old drama over the rabbit and rat bronze heads, which British and French forces looted from the imperial Summer Palace in Beijing towards the end of the Second Opium War.
The bronzes, part of the art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, sold for 15.7 million euros (20.3 million dollars) each at the Christie's auction in Paris.
Authorities in Beijing had repeatedly demanded the sale not go ahead, and that the relics be returned to China.
Cai Mingchao, a well-known antique collector, identified himself as the mystery bidder in a statement released in Beijing by the National Treasures Fund, which is dedicated to retrieving Chinese relics from abroad.
"I believe that any Chinese person would stand up at this time... I am making an effort to fulfill my own responsibilities," Cai said.
"But I must stress that this money I cannot pay."
The statement did not specify whether Cai could not pay for the relics because he did not have the money, or whether his inability to pay was for other reasons, such as his conscience not allowing him to buy looted items.
Officials with the fund did not take questions when they gathered reporters and released the statement, which said Cai is an advisor to the body.
Cai, who is also the head of a Chinese auction house, hit the headlines in 2006 when he paid 116 million Hong Kong dollars (14.95 million dollars) for a Ming dynasty Buddha image at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong.
The treasures fund praised Cai's actions.
"Since the auction has taken place, there has been a lot of guessing about who was behind the winning bid," fund vice-director Niu Xianfeng said in the same statement.
"I formally announce that this bidder is a Chinese person who should be admired. He is an advisor to the fund... Mr Cai Mingchao.
"We want to again stress what Cai Mingchao stressed -- this money can not be paid."
It said Cai had registered with Christie's to participate in the auction.
After the sale, China reacted furiously with government authorities warning Christie's it would face reprisals such as tougher checks on its Chinese operations.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage said last week the auction had "harmed the cultural rights and hurt the feelings of China's people and will seriously impact (Christie's) development in China".
"(The agency) resolutely opposes and condemns all auctions of artefacts illegally taken abroad. Christie's must take responsibility for the consequences created by this auction," it said.