BRUSSELS (AP) — Flying high above Europe's economic crisis, a local lightning-fast pigeon called Bolt became the world's most expensive racing bird when his Belgian breeder sold it for 310,000 euros ($400,000) to a Chinese businessman.
One-year-old Bolt, named after the Jamaican Olympic superstar sprinter Usain Bolt, and with an outstanding pedigree of proven champions to match, was the latest Belgian-bred pigeon to claim record prices. Yet the sums paid surprised anyone involved in the sport, auction house Pipa said. The previous record for a sale of a single bird stood at 250,000 euros ($322,000) from January 2012.
"I was stunned by the prices offered, " Pipa CEO Nikolaas Gyselbrecht said Tuesday.
At a time when a crisis is holding Europe in an ever tighter grip, a feathered handful of prime fowl of some 450 grams (a pound) is reaching unparalleled levels. The full auction of the Leo Heremans coop, 530 birds in all, also yielded a world record of 4.345 million euros ($5.58 million) more than double the previous record from last year.
"One of the reasons there is no economic impact is that buyers are spread around the globe," Gyselbrecht said. "Over 20 countries were bidding last weekend. So if there is a crisis in one country, it might be less so in another," leveling out a downturn in Europe.
Nine of the 10 top birds went to China or Taiwan, "and the crisis is a lot less acute there than out here," Gyselbrecht said.
On top of that, breeder Heremans is known as perhaps the best around. "It was pretty clear something special would happen," said Gyselbrecht.
Heremans, 66, decided to hold the auction of his birds after his health deteriorated and he found it increasingly difficult to operate his coop.
The auction's success was attributed to a successful combination of the breeding acumen of the Belgian fancier and the financial clout of Chinese aficionados.
Two years ago, too, a world record was set when Belgium's Blue Prince went to China for 156,000 euros ($200,000). Now, the price of the best bird has doubled.
At the same time Belgium's coop owners are dwindling. Just after World War II, Belgium's pigeon federation had 250,000 members, and the sport was huge. China nowadays has some 300,000 active pigeon fanciers, barely more than Belgium in its heyday.
The difference though is that if Belgium has a population of 10.5 million, China's is the world's most populous with 1.35 billion.
From generation to generation, breeding secrets were handed over within Belgian families while racing didn't get tougher than in Belgium. Bloodlines were essential for performance, and over the weekend, Bolt's parents fetched a combined 184,000 euros ($237,000).
Yet in the 21st century, breeding pigeons is hardly sexy for today's European youngsters and Belgian fanciers have almost fallen ten-fold to some 27,000, said Gyselbrecht.
If quantity dwindles, quality doesn't, he said. "Those who have continued, have also become much more professional."
And at the other side of the world's interest is booming in the Far East. And part of the attraction is huge prize money involved.
The birds have become so precious though, that Bolt has had his last race already, one year after being picked as Belgium's National Ace speed young birds 2012. Once in China, he'll be used for breeding only and the offspring will be used in the high-priced competitive races.
"He's had his last competitive flight already," said Gyselbrecht.