French Billionaire to Return Looted Sculptures to China
By Don J. Cohn
In a move calculated to please Chinese officials and nationalists alike, the family of French billionaire Francois Pinault announced that two bronze animal heads, looted from a Manchu imperial garden in Beijing in the mid-19th century and recently offered at auction in France by the estate of Yves Saint Laurent, will be returned to China.
The Pinault family issued the following statement on April 26: “The family went to great efforts to retrieve these two significant treasures of China and strongly believe they belong in their rightful home. The family would like to acknowledge Christie’s role in facilitating this return.”
The heads of the rat and rabbit, two of twelve animals making up a clock fountain, were allegedly removed from the Yuanmingyuan summer palace when it was destroyed by western troops in 1860. The heads, like the fountain and a number of other buildings in the complex, were designed and manufactured by European Jesuits in the service of the Manchu court in the 18th century.
The intended gift was announced in Beijing by Pinault’s son, Francois-Henri, during the state visit of French president Francois Hollande. It is perhaps not coincidental that the gesture follows the recent announcement that the auction house Christie’s, which is owned by François-Pinault, has obtained a license to conduct sales in China “independently.” Sotheby’s, Christies’ traditional rival in the auction trade, announced the establishment of a joint venture in 2012, in which Chinese partner GeHua holds a 20 percent interest. The Sotheby’s partnership will enjoy the exclusive right to operate in a new free trade zone in the Beijing area.
The sculptures, which critics assess as having great symbolic value but little artistic worth, have been the focus of recent controversies, with the Chinese government attempting unsuccessfully to block the sale in Paris of the Yves Saint Laurent estate. A Chinese bidder won the larger-than-life-sized heads for a total of USD 40 million, but refused to pay, setting off an online furor in China with hotheaded nationalists praising the courage of the bidder, while other critics mocked him for embarrassing China with his childish antics.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei capitalized on the issue by casting copies of the 12 heads in various sizes, one set of which was displayed on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan in 2011. Ai can be expected to comment on the sycophantic nature of the French peace offering from his present position under house arrest in Beijing.