Pinault Returns Chinese Artifacts

Paris - French billionaire Francois Pinault’s family has donated to the Chinese nation two bronze animal heads that were the subject of a $40 million disputed sale at Christie’s International in 2009.

At that event -- which was heavily criticized by Chinese authorities -- art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network saw many treasures get auctioned for huge sums.

The 18th-century dynasty bronze rabbit and rat heads had been part of the decoration of a water clock at the Summer Palace in Beijing, which was looted by French and British troops in 1860.

Over time, the sculptures passed into the ownership of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his companion Pierre Berge. Following the death of the couturier by brain cancer, the famous collection was auctioned by Christie’s in February 2009 at Paris' Grand Palais.

Even after protests from China’s art advocacy groups, patriots and the foreign ministry, the looted bronzes were included in Christie’s sale, fetching 15.7 million euros (about $20 million) each.

The successful bidder was later identified as Cai Mingchao, a Chinese collector, who refused to pay. The ownership of the sculptures reverted to Pierre Berge.

“The family went to great efforts to retrieve these two significant treasures of China and strongly believe they belong in their rightful home,” the Pinault family office said in a e- mailed statement yesterday. “The family would like to acknowledge Christie’s role in facilitating this return.”

Francois-Henri Pinault is chief executive officer of luxury and sporting goods group PPR SA, which is becoming Kering in June. His father Francois also owns Christie’s, which was bought by his holding company, Artemis SA, for $1.2 billion in May 1998.

Neither Christie’s nor the family office would confirm that the Pinaults had purchased the bronzes from Berge prior to the donation.

Francois-Henri has been traveling in China with French President Francois Hollande to strengthen economic ties between the two countries.