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Previously housed in the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet in Paris, they went on show last week at the Gansu provincial museum.

In the latest high-profile art restitution from France to China, the 28 gold plaques and four large profiles of birds of prey (the latter likely decorations for an 8th century BC Zhou dynasty coffin) were subject to an investigation by a joint Franco-Chinese expert panel after Chinese authorities informed France in 2010 that the pieces could have been pillaged from an archaeological site.

The pieces themselves came to Europe in the 1990s after being bought by dealer Christian Deydier, a former president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, from the widow of the Taiwanese antique dealer.

Pinault's Purchase

The four bird reliefs were then purchased for €1m by Francois Pinault, owner of the luxury goods group Kering and Christie`s auction house, who then gave them to the Musée Guimet. Mr Deydier donated the plaques to the museum, France`s national collection of Asian arts, at the same time.

Although an earlier French investigation into the provenance had reached no conclusion, the French culture minister Fleur Pellerin said the commission set up last year found "an array of consistent indicators led to the conclusion that the Chinese request for restitution was justified". The original donations to Musée Guimet were effectively cancelled which enabled both Pinault and Deydier to 'gift' them to the People`s Republic of China.

This latest restitution follows the return of two Qianlong bronzes originally from a zodiac water clock in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing that caused great upset when they featured in Christie's sale of Yves Saint Laurent's vast art collection in Paris in 2009. Having sold at the auction for €28m (£25.4m), the buyer refused to pay in a patriotic protest and they were returned to Yves Saint Laurent's partner Pierre Bergé who later sold them to François Pinault for an undisclosed price.

Pinault eventually handed the bronzes back to China in 2013, just days after the announcement that Christie's would become the first international auction house to operate independently on mainland China.