French billionaire returns disputed statues to China: a PR coup for the ages?


François-Henri Pinault


Eric Piermont

HONG KONG — Sometimes returning stolen loot can be more profitable than keeping it.

French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault announced Friday that he would donate to the Chinese government two $40 million bronze statues that were taken from Beijing's Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops during the Opium War of 1860.

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage welcomed the repatriation as a "demonstration of French friendship with the Chinese people."

The statues, which depict the head of a rabbit and rat, belonged to a set of 12 sculptures designed by an Italian missionary to serve as a water clock in an 18th century, Qing dynasty pleasure garden.

When Christie's put the two bronzes up for auction in 2009 despite protests from Chinese groups, a Chinese businessman entered the winning $40 million bid, and then said he would not pay for them because they should be returned to China for free.

But the gift is not without its perks for Pinault, as well: the Frenchman's family controls Kering, a luxury conglomerate whose brands include Gucci, and Bottega Veneta, both popular with China's fast-growing high-end shoppers. On Thursday, Kering released its quarterly report showing 10 percent revenue growth on the mainland.

Pinault also made sure to give credit for the bronzes repatriation to Christie's auction house, which is also controlled by Pinault's family. As the Wall Street Journal observed, Christie's recently became the first international auction house to receive a license to operate independently on Chinese soil.

While the return of the bronzes elicited pleased reactions in China, on Monday many also began to question the commercial motives behind the move. On Weibo, China’s microblogging service, hundreds responded to an article calling the donation a “behind-the-back PR move.” Many speculated that the donation had something to do with French President Francois Hollande's official trip to China last week, during which he secured a deal for China to purchase Airbus planes. 

“So 60 planes in exchange for 2 statue heads? Profoundly shrewd,” one user said.

Others wondered France would make casts of the statue heads to keep copies for their own--or even to send China fakes.

"These could just be a couple of cast-model statues, right?" one asked.

The zodiac bronzes have become potent symbols in China of their country's former weakness, and their recovery a sign of China's 21st century resurgence. Jackie Chan's 2012 movie "CZ12" (short for Chinese Zodiac) broke box-office records in China with a plot showing Chan leading a band of adventurers on a quest to steal all 12 statues from unreconstructed Western imperialists. (At the end, Chan appears to sacrifice himself to save the dragon statue.)

With the return of the rat and rabbit, the total number of bronzes in China now comes to seven. Thanks to private donors and big auction pay-outs, the China Poly Group, the commercial arm of the People's Liberation Army, has has the ox, tiger, monkey, pig, and horse heads in its possession. While the dragon head is reportedly in Taiwan, the whereabouts of the remaining four are unknown.