$420,000 for a racing pigeon

$420,000 for a racing pigeon

BEIJING - As the price flew skywards, an audience of middle-aged Chinese men erupted into cheers before the auctioneer slammed his hammer down at a record-breaking two million yuan (S$422,296).

The object of the frenzied bidding - a grey and white racing pigeon - responded with a gentle cooing, its beady red eye scanning the smoke-filled auction room.

Drawing on an age-old tradition, racing birds have become a plaything for rich entrepreneurs in China.

"Two decades ago, 400,000 (yuan) was considered a sky-high price. Prices are going up around 10 per cent every year," declared Zhou Zhuanhong, who presided over the auction in Beijing last month with booming tones.

But the sale was not entirely what it seemed. The buyer - pharmaceutical baron Guo Weicheng - was bidding for his own bird, even though he had to pay the club holding the auction a 40 per cent commission.

Nonetheless dozens of deals including several worth over US$100,000 (S$131,265) were genuine transactions, according to those watching the sale, where high-rollers with chain-smoking entourages tucked birds in cardboard boxes under their dining tables.

"The prices here are like nowhere else," said Ulrik Lejre Larsen, a Danish breeder who is one of many Europeans profiting from pigeon enthusiasts in China. "It's crazy," said another foreign breeder at his side.

Racing pigeons have a sense of direction that science cannot fully explain but allows them to find their way home over hundreds of kilometres, and have been raised in China for more than 1,000 years, often used as military messengers.

While good breeding cannot guarantee success, the descendents of champions - especially Belgian pigeons - raise the highest prices.

Chinese businessman Gao Fuxin set an all time record for a racing pigeon last year, paying 310,000 euros (S$502,364) for a Belgian former champion named Bolt, after the superstar Olympic sprinter.

But in a sign of increasing scrutiny of the trade by Chinese authorities, the bird was held up at customs and Gao handed a 10 per cent tax bill.

Bolt was freed after the Belgian embassy intervened, industry insiders told AFP, and is now said to have retired to stud in Beijing. Gao declined an interview request.

'Perfect for gambling'

China has hundreds of pigeon associations, and working-class breeders in Beijing still send their birds into the sky with whistles attached, sounding a high-pitched whine as they fly over winding alleys.

But the last decade has seen a takeoff of luxury clubs and racing leagues for a new breed of big-spending enthusiasts - and allegations of illegal betting on races.

The Pioneer Club in Beijing's western suburbs is among the most exclusive. Its clubhouse is adorned with classical Greek columns and on event days its carefully manicured lawns are surrounded by Mercedes and Audis.

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