The Pinault family, owners of Christie’s and the luxury goods group PPR, are to hand back to China the two Qianlong bronzes that caused great upset when offered for sale in Paris four years ago.
Just days after the announcement that
Christie's will become the first international auction house to
operate independently on the mainland, the state news organisation
China Radio International reported that the two animal heads, a rat
and a rabbit, from the Haiyantang Zodiac water clock at the Old
Summer Palace, will return to Beijing.
The offer to return the heads this year came
from François-Henri Pinault, the 50-year-old son of the art
collector François Pinault, who formed part of the 60-strong
delegation that accompanied the French president, François
Hollande, on his first visit to China last month.
The State Administration of Cultural
Heritage (SACH) in China said in a state news report that Mr
Pinault's offer, made during a state banquet with the Chinese
President Xi Jinping, was "an expression of friendship toward the
Chinese people" and one worthy of "high praise".
Yves Saint Laurent
Back in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of
sale of Yves Saint Laurent's vast art collection in Paris when
bidding for the bronzes reached €28m (£25.4m), the rhetoric had
been rather different. The SACH had publicly announced their
intention to punish Christie's for their decision to proceed with
the sale: "This has hurt the cultural rights and interests of the
Chinese people and the national sentiment and will have a serious
effect on Christie's development in China."
However, soon after, the successful bidder
(the Fujian province auction house owner Cai Mingchao) called a
news conference to announce that, as a patriotic act of protest, he
had no intention of paying for them. The bronzes, purchased legally
by Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s, were returned to his partner
Pierre Bergé who later sold them to François Pinault for an
The Haiyantang fountain heads, designed by
the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766),
have assumed a special place in China's cultural heritage.
Although they amount to just 12 of the million-plus items that
were removed after French and British forces sacked and burned the
Old Summer Palace in 1860, they have become totemic of China's
humiliation at the hands of imperial Western powers - and, in turn,
a highly sensitive case. Five heads (the tiger, boar, monkey, ox
and horse) are on display in Beijing's Poly Museum, but the
whereabouts of the others is unknown.