French billionaire Francois Pinault’s family donated two bronze animal heads to China that were the subject of a US$40 million disputed sale at Christie’s International in 2009.
The 18th-century Qing Dynasty bronze rabbit and rat heads had been part of the decorations adorning a water clock at the Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted by French and British troops in 1860.
The sculptures subsequently passed into the ownership of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his companion Pierre Berge. Following the death of the couturier, the collection was auctioned by Christie’s in February 2009.
Even after protests from China’s art advocacy groups, patriots and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the looted bronzes were included in Christie’s sale, fetching 15.7 million euros (US$20.4 million) each.
The successful bidder was later identified as Chinese collector Cai Mingchao (蔡銘超), who refused to pay the price, so the ownership of the sculptures reverted to Pierre Berge.
“The family went to great efforts to retrieve these two significant treasures of China and strongly believe they belong in their rightful home,” the Pinault family office said in a e-mailed statement on Friday. “The family would like to acknowledge Christie’s role in facilitating this return.”
Francois-Henri Pinault is chief executive officer of luxury and sporting goods group PPR SA, which is to be renamed Kering in June.
His father, Francois, also owns Christie’s, which was bought by his holding company, Artemis SA, for US$1.2 billion in May 1998.
Neither Christie’s nor the family office would confirm that the Pinaults had purchased the bronzes from Berge prior to the donation.
Francois-Henri Pinault has been traveling in China with French President Francois Hollande to strengthen economic ties between the two countries.