French president François Hollande has embarked on his first visit to China, accompanied by a number of high-profile French business heads. Among them is François-Henri Pinault, the Kering CEO and Christie’s head who has brought a gift of two bronze statues looted from the Beijing Summer Palace in 1860.
“The Chinese side offers its high praise for this action and considers that it conforms with the spirit of relevant international cultural heritage protection treaties,” The State Administration of Cultural Heritage in China said in a statement.
The bronzes, part of a set of 12 that were looted by invading French and British forces, are so well known that artist Ai Weiwei reconstructed them in 2011, and have raised ire between China and France in the past. Owned by Yves Saint Laurent until his death in 2009, the works were sold at auction, a controversial move that generated news when a Chinese businessman refused to honor his winning bid of $40 million. Pinault, who bought the works himself after the auction fell through, decided to return the gifts as a sign of goodwill, looking to strengthen ties between the two nations.
“It is easy to forget, watching China emerge as a great power, that the legacy of humiliation at the hands of modern imperialist aggressors back in the 19th century retains a palpable sense of immediacy even today,” said historian John Delury. “So what might seem a rather obscure gesture of returning a pair of bronze animal heads takes on outsized significance as a kind of restitution of historical justice, a long-awaited righting of wrongs to the Chinese nation.”