In 2009, Christie’s auction house ignored protests from Beijing and put on the block two bronze statues looted by Anglo-French forces during the opium wars.
But the Paris auction of the rat and rabbit statues did not go off as planned. The Chinese businessman who made the highest bid refused to deliver the ¤2.8 million (HK$28.3 million) he pledged. It was a “patriotic act”, he said.
On Friday, the heads were finally handed over to the National Museum in Beijing in a ceremony attended by Li Xiaojie, the director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
Li praised their return as “a friendly message to the Chinese people and a support for China’s cultural relics protection”, according to China’s official Xinhua.
The looting and burning of the palace in 1860 has long symbolised the beginning of China’s long humiliation at the hands of the West.
The return of the statues has, however, been meant with little of the chest-thumping which usually accompanies the retrieval of lost cultural relics on the mainland.
Some microbloggers have said the donation could be little more than a skilful public relations move by the prominent French family which ultimately donated the statues.
The Pinault family’s Kering group owns several luxury brands, including Gucci, Puma and Saint Laurent, which have made huge profits in the booming China market.
The family’s billionaire patriarch, Francois-Henri Pinault, also owns Christie’s, which has seen its efforts to break into China slowed down by failed debacle.
“If it is a business deal, then we are the loser and Christie’s is the winner,” wrote Wu Shu, author of Who’s Auctioning China. “We get back looted items and they are given a licence to operate in China independently.”
After Christie’s failed auction, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage imposed limits on the auction house’s mainland business activities and ordered onerous inspections on all “heritage items” that it sought to import or export.
Just before Pinault offered to return the statues, Christie’s auction house was granted a licence making it the first international auction house to operate independently on the mainland.
The licence does not allow it to trade pre-1911 cultural relics, a restriction that local auction houses are not subject to.
“This restriction may be lifted soon after the handover of the bronzes,” said Ji Tao, director of China Tenwin International Auction House. “The return of the two bronze heads will help to mend the relations between the Christie’s and the Chinese government.”
Pinault offered to return the statues during trade mission to China with French President Francois Hollande. During Hollande’s visit, China ordered 60 passenger jets from European-planemaker Airbus.
The rat and rabbit statues will now join the ox, monkey, tiger, pig and horse statues which had already been reacquired. The whereabouts of the remaining five statues remain unknown.