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The bronze was sold at The Canterbury Auction Galleries earlier this year (April 11, 2018) for £410,000, four times its lower estimate, to a phone bidder.

Its anonymous Chinese purchaser subsequently decided to donate the vessel to The State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China (SACH) which then donated it to The National Museum of China (NMC) in Beijng.

Discovered in a bungalow in a Kent seaside town, it had been brought back from China by Royal Marines Captain Harry Lewis Evans (1831-83), who was present when the emperor’s Summer Palace in Pekin (Beijing) fell to British and French forces in 1860.

Surviving letters from Evans give a vivid account of the Second Opium War. He took part in the capture of Canton in 1857, and the failed attack on the Taku Forts in 1859.

In a letter dated October 17, 1860, he recorded in detail the infamous looting of the Yuanming Yuan, or Old Summer Palace.

Tiger ying

Only six similar archaic vessels, or ying, are known to exist, five of which are already in museums and this version has previously unrecorded decoration.

Dating from the period 1027-771BC (the pottery core of the handle and one foot have been subjected to a thermo-luminescence test in Oxford), the vessel has been christened ‘the tiger ying’ – a reference to the auspicious felines that adorn the spout and cover.

An initial handover was made at the Chinese Embassy in London in September. An export licence was then granted last month and the ying was taken to China. Another handover ceremony took place at The National Museum of China in Beijing on December 11.

The return of objects from overseas that are in British, French, German and US collections has become a well-publicised debate. A recently published report commissioned by the French President Emmanuel Macron recommended the permanent repatriation of African heritage looted during the colonial era and the governor of Easter Island had recently asked the British Museum to return statues it owns.

In 2013 businessman François-Henri Pinault, owner of luxury goods group Kering and auction house Christie’s, returned two bronzes, a rat head and a rabbit head to China. The bronze heads were among 12 animal heads, replicating the Chinese zodiac, that had featured in a central fountain clock at the Summer Palace.

China's government has said over the past few decades, nearly 4000 looted cultural relics have been returned to China through various means.