BEIJING — With their floppy ears, shiny brown eyes and whimsical grins, they were the faces that launched a legal battle extending from Paris to Beijing.
On Monday, a French judge ruled that the 18th century Chinese bronze heads depicting a rabbit and a rat can be auctioned off this week at Christie's in Paris as part of the estate of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Nobody disputed that the heads were looted during the second Opium War in 1860 when French and British troops sacked the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, one of the great humiliations in Chinese history. However, the auction house insisted that the heads, worth about $10 million each, have a clear chain of ownership and can be resold since they traded hands several times over the 20th century.
The auction house also said, in effect, that if China wants the heads back, it can shell out the necessary money during the three-day auction, which concludes Wednesday.
"Christie's supports repatriation of cultural relics to their home country and aids in the process where possible by sourcing and bringing works of art to the auction platform to give buyers a chance to bid for them," the auction house said.
In recent years, the Chinese have spent tens of millions of dollars to buy back portions of the nation's pilfered cultural heritage.
An entire museum in Beijing run by the Poly Corp., which is operated by a state-owned military enterprise, is filled with repatriated artworks, including several other bronze animal heads that along with the two held by Saint Laurent were part of the set of 12 representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac.
The museum bought the tiger, monkey and ox through auction houses in Hong Kong in 2000, while the pig's head was recovered in New York by Hong Kong casino magnate Stanley Ho, who in turn donated it to the museum.
But the Chinese are increasingly resentful at the high prices they've had to fork out. Ho reportedly paid $9 million in a deal brokered by Sotheby's to get the horse head back from Taiwan. Christie's was reported to be asking $10 million each for the rabbit and rat in behind-the-scenes negotiations in the last few years with prospective Chinese buyers.
"It is really shameful. They are like kidnappers demanding ransom to give back your own child," said Li Xingfeng, one of a group of 81 Chinese lawyers who filed the lawsuit last week in Paris trying to block the sale. They have vowed to pursue the case to recover the heads from whomever might buy them.
The heads have become the poster children in the Chinese campaign to recover the treasures that symbolized its past grandeur.
Crafted by an Italian priest in the 18th century, they were part of a clock fountain that was said to be a favorite of the emperor. They each sprayed water two hours a day and in unison at noon.
The other five heads -- the dragon, snake, goat, rooster and dog -- remain unaccounted for and were possibly destroyed. That makes the rabbit and the rat the last remaining pieces of the set.
The Chinese government, which is not directly party to the lawsuit, is also seeking return of the heads through diplomatic channels.
Ties between France and China are already strained over French President Nicolas Sarkozy's meeting in December with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, and a messy Paris protest during the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics.
Art experts believe the French government is reluctant to step into the fray, not least of the reasons being the precedent it might set for claims to the vast collection of antiquities in the Louvre.
"There are a lot of similarities between the Chinese works that were robbed and the Greek antiquities. All were acquired by illegal means," said Xie Chensheng, a cultural relics scholar in Beijing.
Pierre Berge, who was Yves Saint Laurent's business partner and companion for nearly 50 years until the designer's death last year, has further inflamed the Chinese by offering to trade the bronze heads for political concessions.
"All they have to do is to declare they are going to apply human rights, give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory," Berge said in an interview with French radio over the weekend. "If they do that, I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing."
Paris art dealer Nicolas Kugel reportedly sold them the heads, which had previously been in the collection of pianist and arts patron Misia Sert.
Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in Madrid and Nicole Liu and Eliot Gao of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.