Two Looted Zodiac Sculptures to Return to China

Two zodiac sculptures stolen from the Old Summer Palace by British and French troops in 1860 will return to China later this year. The animal heads, cast in the mid-18th Century, inspired a set of replicas by artist Ai Weiwei and were controversially auctioned in 2009 as part of the art collection of designer Yves Saint Laurent. Their current owner, French businessman François-Henri Pinault, announced his decision to return the sculptures during a visit to China by president François Hollande and eight of his cabinet ministers. From Xinhua’s China View:

A Global Times editorial welcomed Pinault’s donation:

It remains fresh in the minds of the Chinese people that four years ago, the two bronze heads were auctioned by Christie’s, triggering a round of verbal conflict between China and France. [Christie’s is owned by PPR/Kering, of which Pinault is CEO.] But now, that the French offer to return the two pieces of Chinese treasure is a tremendous turn-around.

[…] Pinault and his stance on behalf of the French people should be appreciated.

In fact, after the 2009 auction of the two bronze heads in which a Chinese buyer won the bid but refused to pay the money, 80 percent of French people, according to a survey conducted by Le Figaro, were in favor of returning these sculptures back to their place of origin.

It is true that friendliness between two countries cannot come from nowhere. But the slight change that saw the two bronze heads “donated” instead of being “bought” back is a strong one.

Pinault’s gesture may not have been purely one of friendship, however. From Nadya Masidlover in Paris and Jason Chow at The Wall Street Journal:

The decision to return the statues comes as PPR—soon to be renamed Kering—seeks to further develop its business in China. The company—whose brands also include Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent and Puma—has redefined its business in recent years around luxury and lifestyle labels, shedding many assets and acquiring others in a bid to tap into fast-growing consumer spending in emerging markets and notably in China.

In Friday’s statement, Mr. Pinault and his family highlighted their businesses’ “considerable presence in China.” PPR does close to 10% of its business in mainland China.

The move also follows the Chinese government’s decision to grant a license to Christie’s, making it the first international fine art auction house to operate independently in mainland China, based in Shanghai. Previously, Christie’s was restricted to a licensing deal with a local Chinese auction house. Christie’s said it expects to hold its first sale this autumn.

See more on the new Christie’s license at CDT.

At The New York Times, Edward Wong and Steven Erlanger explained the Zodiac heads’ heavy symbolism, both historic and more recent:

“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 John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul who, with Orville Schell, is writing a book on China’s quest for wealth and power. “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.”

[…] The two bronzes, a rat head and a rabbit head, were among 12 animal heads, replicating the Chinese zodiac, in a central fountain clock at the palace, spewing water to tell time. All disappeared after the palace, also known as Yuanmingyuan and used by rulers of the Qing dynasty, was destroyed by Western troops in 1860.

So iconic are the animal heads that Ai Weiwei, the rebel artist, made a sculpture with versions of all 12. Typical of Mr. Ai, the sculpture was constructed with a sense of irony. It was first displayed in May 2011 at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan while Mr. Ai was being illegally detained in Beijing by security forces, and it quickly came to symbolize the constant conflict in China over issues of free speech.

According to CRI International, “by the end of 2012, the heads of ox, tiger, monkey, pig and horse had been brought back to China and are being kept by The China Poly Group. The dragon head is reportedly in Taiwan, while the heads of snake, sheep, rooster, and dog still remain missing.”