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Greek tax-dodgers, Irish horse dealers and Chinese art cheats: please skip this column

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

26 January 2013

9:00 AM

It’s only fair to warn you — especially if you’re Greek, Irish or Chinese — that this week’s column contains negative stereotyping. I’ll leave the transsexuals to Rod Liddle, but I’m still bracing for the  Twitter storm.

My propensity to commit this category of thought crime was first pointed out to me by Giorgos Papaconstantinou, the socialist former finance minister of Greece. A graduate of the LSE, George to his friends, he was his country’s most fluent spokesman during earlier stages of its financial crisis — and last May I came up against him in a debate about the pros and cons of ‘austerity’. I argued that the word itself was merely a synonym for the frugal, uncorrupt government supported by willing taxpayers that was largely absent in southern Europe, but that it was being larded with an excess of emotion about the temporary suffering it might cause. ‘That hits a nerve,’ retorted George: there were ‘too many stereotypes flying around’ when what was needed was empathy with his country’s plight and ‘a more relaxed fiscal path’.

That last phrase came to mind when I read that George now faces criminal investigation. He is accused of removing the names of three of his relatives from the ‘Lagarde list’ of 2,000 Greek citizens who held accounts at HSBC’s Geneva branch and may have been evading domestic taxes. This was sent to George as finance minister by his French opposite number Christine Lagarde (now head of the IMF) in 2010, but no investigation in Athens ensued. After he left office, the Lagarde spreadsheet was thought to have been lost — but has now turned up again on a memory stick, the French having provided a copy of the original for comparison.

Meanwhile, a journalist who published a version of the list was briefly arrested for breach of privacy. And the Lagarde list is not to be confused with others said to be in the hands of the authorities — of Greek holders of accounts in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, Greek owners of super-yachts registered in the Netherlands, and (this one getting longer by the day) Greek buyers of luxury properties in London, not to mention a master list of 54,000 Greeks believed to have taken €22 billion out of the -country between 2009 and 2012. Is there a pattern here, or would that be stereotyping? I wouldn’t like to say.

Shergar-burger scandal

News that Tesco Everyday Value beefburgers supplied by an Irish company, Silvercrest, have been found to contain 29 per cent horsemeat reminded me of a snippet I picked up in Dublin when I reported two years ago on the spectacular bursting of the Irish real estate bubble: ‘In some trainers’ yards, every horse was owned by new-rich builders,’ I wrote. ‘But … there are no buyers for the builders’ nags at bloodstock sales — and owners often don’t bother to collect them if they’re unsold.’ I’m grateful to the Irish Times for the statistic that the number of horses slaughtered in licensed Irish abattoirs rose from 7,000 in 2010 to 12,575 in 2011. That represents colossal quantities of prime horseflesh for export to Italy, France and Germany, while an unknown number of horses were also being shipped live to meat plants in Poland, France and Spain. Larry Goodman, the Irish tycoon behind Silvercrest, has queried the validity of DNA tests on his products while fingering a Dutch supplier of ‘burger filler’ as a possible source of horsemeat originating from South America. Meanwhile, cookery writers reassure us that horse steak makes healthy eating.

But what with all that exporting and im-porting in a trade described by welfare groups as inhumane, poorly tracked and prone to ‘identity swapping’, I can’t help wondering whether some of those unsold non-runners have been finding their way back to processing plants in their home country. Or am I being unfair to Irish horse dealers?

Cultural problem

One story with a happy ending this week was the private sale, for more than £20 million, of an 18th-century Qianlong vase which had previously attracted a winning auction bid of £43 million from a ‘Chinese billionaire’ who then refused to pay up. The sellers, retired solicitor Tony Johnson and his mother, now have ample cash in the bank, and both the original auctioneer in Ruislip and Bonhams who negotiated the private sale have been remunerated, so all’s well.

But — amid a booming multibillion market in Oriental artworks and antiques — non-payment by Chinese bidders has become a plague on international auction houses as well as suburban ones. Sotheby’s in particular has pursued a string of lawsuits against defaulters in its Hong Kong sales, and at one stage introduced a requirement that potential bidders on premium lots should pay a HK$1 million (£80,000) deposit to establish their bona fides.

The problem is delicately described as ‘cultural’. All handbooks on doing business in China warn that contracts there are merely frameworks for negotiation; auction bids are apparently seen the same way, as the starting point from which to chisel prices down again in private. Likewise, ‘face’ is all-important: bidders lose it if they stop bidding, even if they have gone beyond their means, but take offence when asked to pay a deposit — so may not bid at all, resulting in lower hammer prices all round. Some winning bidders also resort to claiming that the dignity of China itself will be affronted if they pay top dollar for artworks which they belatedly realise were looted by foreigners in the first place.

And some just see the western auction mechanism as an opportunity to outwit the gweilo. I gather it’s not unknown for the winner and the under-bidder to be representing the same dealer, who has already agreed an onward sale at an even higher price and wants to reassure his customer of a lively, rising market — but if the customer pulls out, so does the dealer. Alongside caveat emptor, the slogan of today’s auction world must be: beware the wily Chinaman. Oh dear, I think that’s a hat-trick.

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