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Tiananmen Square watch withdrawn from sale by auction house | China

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A luxury UK auction house has withdrawn from sale a rare watch given to Chinese soldiers as a reward for their part in the Tiananmen Square massacre, after it said the vendor had received online threats.

The sale of the watch, depicting a green-helmeted soldier and the text “89.6 to commemorate the quelling of the rebellion” in Chinese characters, sparked questions over the ethics of profiting from an item associated with an atrocity.

Fellows, a UK auction company, had been individually promoting the watch as part of a mass auction of luxury timepieces scheduled for sale on 19 April. But after media reports on Thursday Fellows announced the watch had been withdrawn from sale.

“Threats made on social media against the owner of this watch has caused the vendor to express concerns about their safety. We have taken the decision to remove this watch from auction,” it said.

A spokesperson told the Guardian all threats had been received digitally, and as an example shared one tweeted reply to a news story that asked if the watch was “admissible evidence and the owner should be traced and tried for the massacre which China try to cover up?”

The number of people killed when soldiers violently cleared student protesters from Tiananmen Square and surrounding streets in Beijing is unknown. Estimates range into the thousands. Officially the Chinese government said fewer than two dozen were killed, but it also suppresses information and references to the incident inside China.

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters gather in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters gather in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Photograph: Sadayuki Mikami/AP

Fellows said the watch came from a private collection and had been “left in a cupboard for many years”, and the name of the soldier who originally received it was unknown. Its investigations into the provenance of the watch found that “to the best of our knowledge, the vendor is not associated with the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], nor the Chinese government”, it said.

In her book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Louisa Lim said the watch was one of several mementoes given to PLA soldiers for their role in suppressing the student protests, as well as a book of photos titled Defenders of the Capital, and a gold-coloured medal bearing the same inscription.

It is believed there are just a few hundred of the watches in existence, including one on display at a study centre in Yale University. In an earlier blogpost highlighting the item, Fellows said the watch – priced between £2,500 and £3,500 – was “likely to be one of the only watches of this kind to go up for auction in the UK”.

In its later statement, Fellows said the watch was “of international interest”, and in the past it had sold items from all sides of global conflicts. “It is not our place to comment on events of the past. It is important for us to shine a light on historic events and report upon them in a respectful and unbiased manner,” it said.

The Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao said the sale of the watch was brought to his attention on Thursday morning, and he accused the auction house of “auctioning evidence of the Tiananmen massacre”.

In response to Fellows’ statement of withdrawing the sale, released during the Guardian’s interview, Badiucao said the auction house had appeared to be conducting “crisis management”. He noted one of the item listing’s photos of the watch displayed on a man’s wrist.

“I didn’t see ‘reflection on the gravity of history’ reflected in that photo. It’s just like any promotion of a luxury watch,” he said.

Badiucao said it would be a shame if the watch disappeared from public now, because there was potential for good in the sale if profits were donated to victims and families or Chinese human rights groups, and if the watch was displayed for educational purposes.

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