Pinaults Repatriate Royal Relics

Beijing -- François-Henri Pinault, the owner of Christie's has returned two Qianlong (18th-century) bronze sculptures looted 150 years ago from a fountain located in the Old Summer Palace, in China.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network have been following the rancorous route of this revered rat and rabbit.

The antiquities had long resided in the private collection of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and auctioned in his estate sale -- only to be reneged upon by an angry Chinese bidder.

"By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation," François-Henri proclaimed at a ceremony at China's National Museum, near Tiananmen Square.

François-Henri Pinault is chief executive of the global holding group Kering (pronounced, 'caring'), formerly PPR -- the luxury retail conglomerate. François Pinault, pictured here, is François-Henri's father. The elder Pinault, along with the Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, unveiled the treasures for the press on Friday.

He is the founder of the company which now counts among its holdings: the Chateau Latour vineyard in Bordeaux, Christie's Auction House, Gucci, Alexander McQueen,Stella McCartney, Balenciaga and St. Laurent Paris.

"For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage," François Pinault said. "We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain," he said.

Revered Rodents

The sculptures were part of a fountain clock built in 1759 on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing. The royal building was ransacked and much of it was destroyed when French and British troops attacked in 1860, during the Second Opium War.

All 12 heads, representing the animals of the Chinese horoscope, were looted by Anglo-French troops when they sacked the grounds.

The bronze heads became symbols of China’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and the government has been keen to retrieve them. Five heads haven’t been seen since, while the others turned up over the years at various European auctions where all but two of them were secured either by the state-owned Poly Group or by wealthy collector Stanley Ho who donated them to Chinese museums.

These two sculptures wound up in the insanely cluttered home of fashion couturier Yves Saint Laurent and his partner and heir, Pierre Bergé. The latter attempted to sell them at auction in 2009, only to have a mystery buyer bid the sculptures up 28m Euros and then default on the sale, protesting that they were stolen and part of China's cultural heritage.

The bronzes were returned to Bergé and later privately purchased by Pinault, for an undisclosed sum.

Pinault's Sino Savvy

In a case of classic Qianlong quid pro quo, Pinaults' auction emporium, Christie’s, announced they had obtained the first and only license to exclusively operate in Shanghai. They are now the only foreign auction house to independently mount sales in China.

The Pinault family controls one of the largest luxury brand corporations in the world. Clearly this generous gift to the Chinese government will further accelerate Pinault's expansion into upscale retail markets of the 'Forbidden Kingdom'