Two bronze animal heads, stolen 153 years ago, returned to China

Fri Jun 28, 2013 11:24am EDT
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By Terril Yue Jones

BEIJING (Reuters) - The family of a French billionaire and art collector eased a sore point in history on Friday by returning two bronze animal heads, among Chinese treasures pillaged from a Beijing palace by French and British troops more than a century and a half ago.

The sculptures, of a rabbit and a rat, are among 12 animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac that were looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860 by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War.

The mystery of the heads' whereabouts and lengthy efforts by Chinese authorities to retrieve them have built up a mystique around the artifacts.

"By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation," said Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of luxury and retail group Kering, at a ceremony at China's National Museum alongside Tiananmen Square.

Pinault's father, Francois Pinault, and Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong pulled red silk covers off the small busts to unveil them in front of reporters.

The animal heads were part of a fountain at the Old Summer Palace, known as Yuanmingyuan in Chinese. Today the palace grounds are an extensive park, with the rubble of smashed buildings kept intentionally in place as a reminder of how China was ransacked at the hands of Britain, France and other foreign powers.

To date, seven of the Chinese animal heads have been found and are now in museums in Beijing.

"This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people," Chinese Vice Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said.   Continued...

Christie's auctions a bronze rat head made for the Zodiac fountain of the Emperor Qianlong's Summer Palace in China from the private art collection of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent at the Grand Palais Museum in Paris in this February 25, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Files