Two rare bronze Chinese zodiac sculptures, looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace during the 1860s, were officially returned to China on Friday by the Pinault family, owners of the French luxury group Kering.
French mogul and art collector François Pinault received a certificate of donation at a ceremony at China's National Museum in Beijing on Friday, as he unveiled the artifacts to media alongside Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong.
"By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation," Pinault's son, Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault, said at the ceremony.
The bronzes, which depict the head of a rabbit and a rat, respectively, were part of a fountain featuring the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. During the second Opium War of 1860, British and French troops destroyed the imperial palace and pillaged its treasures, including the bronzes.
The rabbit and rat sculptures turned up in 2009 as part of a vast Christie's art auction after the death of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. China disputed the auction but when it failed to stop the proceedings, a Chinese collector successfully bid for the two pieces and then refused to pay, claiming his defiance as a "patriotic act." The heads reverted back to Saint Laurent's partner.
The Pinault family says it bought the bronze heads from a private collector.
The rabbit and rat sculptures will join five other zodiac heads returned to China previously and on display in museums: the ox, monkey, tiger, pig and horse. The whereabouts of the final five — the dog, snake, sheep, rooster and dragon — are currently unknown.
The powerful Pinault family controls a massive portfolio of companies. Kering, which recently changed its name from PPR, owns luxury fashion brands such as Gucci, Stella McCartney and Yves Saint Laurent.
Meanwhile, billionaire patriarch François Pinault owns international auction house Christie's, famed Bordeaux vineyard Château Latour as well as French and Swiss publications. The Pinault family, which first announced its donation of the two bronze zodiac heads in April, has recently ventured into the Chinese market.