The French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault owner of Christie’s Auctioneers is returning two Qianlong (18th-century) bronzes looted from its Old Summer Palace to China . The Royal building was ransacked and much of it was destroyed when French and British troops attacked in 1860, during the Second Opium War. The sculptures were recently offered as lots in the auction of the collection of the fashion couturier Yves Saint Laurent and his partner and heir, Pierre Bergé. A mystery buyer bid the sculptures up 28m Euros and defaulted on the sale,protesting that they were stolen and part of China’s cultural heritage. The bronzes were returned to Bergé and later acquired by Pinault, for an undisclosed sum.
The Zodiac animal heads depicting a rat and a rabbit, part of a Zodiac fountain, were returned to China as “an expression of friendship toward the Chinese people,” a Chinese spokesman for the country’s Administration of Cultural Heritage stated. This month Christie’s announced they had obtained the first and only license to exclusively operate in Shanghai. They are now the only foreign auction house to independently mount sales in China.
The return of these great works of art was made public during French President Francois Hollande’s two-day visit to China, which included a banquet on Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other guests, including Francois-Henri Pinault, the CEO of the luxury group PPR that also owns Christies.
So far, five of the 12 bronze animal fountainheads from the Old Summer Palace have been returned to China through purchases in auctions or donations by overseas Chinese collectors.