François-Henri Pinault, CEO of the French conglomerate Kering which owns Gucci and Saint Laurent Paris, among other luxury brands, has promised to return two bronze zodiac heads, the rabbit and the rat, that have been missing from China since the Second Opium War, when the palace they were installed in was looted by British and French armies.
Pinault, France's third-richest man, at $15 billion, according to Forbes, is traveling in China with French President François Hollande.
The visit has important commercial aspects for France. On Thursday, China gave the go-ahead to a deal to purchase $8 billion worth of Airbus airplanes, assembled in France.
The bronze heads were originally installed as parts of a prominent timekeeping fountain in the Old Summer Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing. Each of the 12 zodiac-themed figures shoots out water for two hours, and at noon, all 12 shoot out waters at once. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French armies looted and burned the palace, and the bronze heads were taken from their stone bases and went along with the retreating armies. The heads have been scattered around the world since then, and have become representations of what the Chinese consider a shameful part of their history. The homecoming of these figures would be very meaningful to the Chinese people.
Thus far, five heads, the ox, the monkey, the tiger, the horse and the pig, have been returned to China. The dragon is in the possession of a Taiwanese collector. With the return of the rabbit and the rat, eight of the original 12 would've been recovered. The snake, the goat, the rooster and the dog remain undiscovered.
In 2009, after fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s death, the two bronze heads, which were in his possession, were put up for auction. Even then, China expressed its disapproval at the act.
“The Chinese side offers its high praise for this action and considers that it conforms to the spirit of relevant international cultural heritage protection treaties,” Song Xinchao, the deputy director of China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said. “The gesture of donation from the Pinault family adds meaning to these two Chinese treasures.”