Fowl play?

China buyer pays $210,000 for a racing pigeon

Fowl play?

Bye bye Belgium, hello Beijing

Pigeons have a long association with wealth creation. Think back to Nathan Rothschild. In an era before Bloomberg terminals, the London banker used the birds to get advance news of the Battle of Waterloo. Having discovered that Wellington’s army had defeated the French, Rothschild initially spread the word that the British had lost. Investors began to sell in reaction to the news, allowing the financier to buy up bonds on the cheap.

Once he’d built his position, Rothschild then let it be known that Napoleon had been vanquished. The estimate is that the profit on this trade saw the Rothschild’s wealth multiply twentyfold, making them one of Europe’s richest families.

No surprise, then, that pigeons have started to get the attention of China’s new rich. In fact, a Chinese buyer set a new record this year, paying €156,000 ($210,389) for a fowl named Blue Prince.

According to New Weekly, Blue Prince was just one of the birds sold to Chinese buyers in a world record auction (raising €1.37 million from 218 birds under the hammer).

Belgium is a centre for the breeding of racing pigeons, and still possesses the birds with the most prized ancestry – i.e. those most capable of flying home fastest.

Pigeon racing has been popular in northern Europe for more than a century, but in recent years it has taken off too in China. And as with all things in China, don’t expect the participants to indulge in half measures. In fact, one pigeon ‘derby’ race in Wuhan has an estimated prize money of €5 million, says PIPA, a Belgian-based organiser of bird auctions.

Such is China’s importance as a buyer that in June, PIPA’s president, Thomas Van Cauwenberghe spent 20 days visiting seven Chinese cities. He was accompanied by his chief operating officer – appropriately enough Chinese – Yi Minna. She told the Washington Post that Chinese buyers have been collecting birds just as they have been keen to accumulate fine wine and high-performance cars. But she says the birds have a distinct advantage: “One bottle of wine remains one bottle. You have a nice pigeon and it will have more children and grandchildren.”

Blue Prince, the bird that broke the sales records, was shipped to China to breed, not to race.

Another big factor behind pigeon-fancying is that they offer a vehicle for betting. The Chinese propensity for gambling has been covered by WiC before (see the Focus Issue ‘Punting on Macau’ in particular), and there are now thought to be 300,000 pigeon association members racing about 30 million racing pigeons.

The real action is in so-called Loft Races in which young birds must find their way back to their home lofts across distances of hundreds of kilometres. PIPA’s Yi mentions a Shanghai race in which the winning pigeon earned its backers €500,000, and New Weekly equates the loft owners to bankers in a casino, taking bets from enthusiasts on the thousand or so participating birds.

Sadly, whatever money touches in China it is liable to corrupt. At an annual meeting of the Beijing Pigeon Association, one member made an impassioned speech claiming “loft cheating” has become common.

With 400 lofts, and annual prize monies worth an aggregate Rmb500 million, speculators were taking over the sport, he claimed. Inside information was also being sold on which birds were (in contravention of the rules) better fed or trained (especially in Shandong, apparently, where rigging races is most common).

Some unscrupulous loft owners would also take cash ahead of races and then flee without paying up.

In spite of all the expensive birds being bought in Belgium, the verdict of Shen Qi, the Secretary General of the Liaoning Pigeon Association is that 2011 has proved a “crossroads” for pigeon racing in China and a “troublesome year”.

As one fancier added on the internet: “Today’s pigeon sport has no justice, no good or bad, no right or wrong, no honour!”

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