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Chinese hail planned return of bronze heads by French billionaire

April 27, 2013|By Barbara Demick
  • The rabbit head, shown above at a 2009 exhibit, is part of a set of 12 statues representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac that were looted from Beijings old Summer Palace in 1860.
The rabbit head, shown above at a 2009 exhibit, is part of a set of 12 statues… (Francois Guillot / AFP/Getty…)

BEIJING-- The rabbit and the rat are finally coming home.

Two bronze heads that were looted from Beijing’s old Summer Palace in 1860 are to be returned to China this year by a French billionaire who acquired them from Christie’s auction house, Chinese state media reported.

The donation was announced late Friday by Francois-Henri Pinault, heir and chief executive of luxury fashion conglomerate Kering Inc., which is expanding its business in the booming Chinese market. Pinault was part of a business delegation accompanying French President Francois Hollande to China.

"It is not only a friendly gesture to the Chinese people, but will also be conducive to the return of more Chinese relics from overseas," the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said in a statement published Saturday in state media.

The two heads, as large as beach balls, are part of a set of 12 representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Originally fountain ornaments, they are less valued aesthetically than politically, symbolizing for many Chinese their nation’s humiliation during the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

In 2009, Christie’s attempted to auction off the rat and the rabbit, which it had acquired from the estate of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent. China protested the auction, and when it failed to win an injunction, a Chinese nonprofit group dedicated to repatriating antiques scuttled the sale by submitting a fake high bid of nearly $40 million under an assumed name. Pinault, who is married to actress Salma Hayek, eventually acquired the two heads from Christie’s, which is owned by his holding company.

The donation is not purely altruistic. Pinault’s brands -- Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent and Puma -- are chalking up high sales in China, the world’s fastest-growing luxury market, and Christie’s recently became the first international art auction house licensed to operate without a local partner in China.

Also during Hollande’s visit, a trade deal was announced for China to buy 60 Airbus planes.

Song Xinchao, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, told reporters that the heads should be returned by July and will be displayed at the National Museum of China.

According to the agency, some 1.5 million relics were looted from the Old Summer Place and are now housed in 2,000 museums in 47 countries.

With China’s growing wealth, private collectors have begun buying back looted relics and have recovered the heads of an ox, tiger, monkey, pig and horse, which are displayed in the Poly Art Museum, owned by a military-linked conglomerate. Five other pieces from the zodiac set remain missing and have become a cause celebre among Chinese. The dissident artist Ai Weiwei made replicas of the heads that were displayed in New York in 2011 while last year’s Hong Kong action film “Chinese Zodiac” featured Jackie Chan leading mercenaries in a quest to recover the heads.

News of the Frenchman’s donation was widely applauded by Chinese.

"I hope one day all 12 zodiac heads can be reunited!" wrote one Chinese antiques expert on a microblog site.

Nicole Liu of the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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