13-05-07-2090NE02A Qianlong bronze rat.jpg
The Qinglong bronze fountainhead of a rat, which together with one of a rabbit once formed part of the Haiyantang Zodiac water clock at the Old Summer Palace. The two are being returned to China as a gift from François-Henri Pinault.

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Just days after the announcement that Christie's will become the first international auction house to operate independently on the mainland, the state news organisation China Radio International reported that the two animal heads, a rat and a rabbit, from the Haiyantang Zodiac water clock at the Old Summer Palace, will return to Beijing.

The offer to return the heads this year came from François-Henri Pinault, the 50-year-old son of the art collector François Pinault, who formed part of the 60-strong delegation that accompanied the French president, François Hollande, on his first visit to China last month.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) in China said in a state news report that Mr Pinault's offer, made during a state banquet with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, was "an expression of friendship toward the Chinese people" and one worthy of "high praise".

Yves Saint Laurent Sale

Back in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of Christie's sale of Yves Saint Laurent's vast art collection in Paris when bidding for the bronzes reached €28m (£25.4m), the rhetoric had been rather different. The SACH had publicly announced their intention to punish Christie's for their decision to proceed with the sale: "This has hurt the cultural rights and interests of the Chinese people and the national sentiment and will have a serious effect on Christie's development in China."

However, soon after, the successful bidder (the Fujian province auction house owner Cai Mingchao) called a news conference to announce that, as a patriotic act of protest, he had no intention of paying for them. The bronzes, purchased legally by Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s, were returned to his partner Pierre Bergé who later sold them to François Pinault for an undisclosed price.

The Haiyantang fountain heads, designed by the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), have assumed a special place in China's cultural heritage.

Although they amount to just 12 of the million-plus items that were removed after French and British forces sacked and burned the Old Summer Palace in 1860, they have become totemic of China's humiliation at the hands of imperial Western powers - and, in turn, a highly sensitive case. Five heads (the tiger, boar, monkey, ox and horse) are on display in Beijing's Poly Museum, but the whereabouts of the others is unknown.