French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault on Friday handed back to China two rare bronzes plundered from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War in 1860.
The bronzes of two animal heads were the subject of controversy in 2009, when they were put up for auction at Christie’s by Pierre Berge, the partner of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
A representative of China topped the bidding with an offer of 14 million euros (US$18.2 million) each, but subsequently refused to pay on the grounds that the artefacts were part of the country’s national heritage and had been removed illegally.
That was the last that was heard of them until April this year, when Pinault, whose vast business interests include ownership of Christie’s, accompanied French President Francois Hollande on a state visit to China.
Pinault revealed that he had acquired the two bronzes from Berge and would be handing them back to China, which he did on Friday in a ceremony at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, Beijing.
“The gesture of our family is a demonstration of our friendship and respect towards your country,” Pinault said.
The two bronzes, one of a rabbit and one of a rat, date from the 18th century and were originally part of a series of all 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac which decorated a clepsydra, or water clock, in the Summer Palace.
Five others have been recovered by China, including the horse, which was gifted to the state by Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho (何鴻燊) in 2007. The whereabouts of the five other bronzes is not known.
Industry insiders said Pinault’s gesture underlined the importance of good relations with China for the luxury brands that are grouped under his Kering group, formerly known as PPR.
Christie’s is also attempting to gain a foothold in the Chinese market, with little success so far.
With annual turnover of nearly 10 billion euros, Kering owns, among others, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Puma. It acquired Chinese jeweler Qeelin at the end of last year.