Two imperial bronze sculptures that were looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace will come home later this year, thanks to the donation of the French art-collecting Pinault family, China's top heritage authority announced on Friday afternoon.
French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault will return the bronze rabbit (right) and rat fountainheads to China.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced the news on its website after a meeting with the visiting Pinaults on Friday morning.
The sculptures, of a rat and a rabbit head, were made for the zodiac fountain of Emperor Qianlong's Old Summer Palace, and looted when the palace was razed by invading French and British forces in 1860.
The sculptures made news when their auction by French auction house Christie's in February 2009 aroused controversy worldwide.
The statues' winning bid was more than 31 million euros ($40.3 million), but the deal collapsed when Chinese buyer Cai Mingchao refused to pay.
The Pinault family — the majority shareholder of PPR, whose brands include Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Puma — bought the two sculptures after that.
Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of PPR, promised the donation on behalf of the family, which also owns auction house Christie's, during a meeting with SACH officials on Friday.
Earlier this month, Christie's was granted a license that will enable it to become the first international auction house to operate independently in China, which has overtaken the United States as the world's largest art and auction market.
The SACH highly endorsed the donation, saying it was "in accordance with the spirit of international conventions" and "of friendliness to Chinese people", which will help push forward the "common international understanding that cultural relics should be returned to their country of origin".
Song Xinchao, deputy director of SACH who met Pinault at Beijing's Park Hyatt Hotel on Friday morning, said China hopes to see the return of the sculptures by July and add them to the collection at the National Museum of China.
To date, five of the 12 bronze animal fountainheads from the Old Summer Palace have been returned to China through purchases in auctions or donations by overseas Chinese collectors.
Like other ancient civilizations, China saw many cultural relics taken overseas when the country was subjected to wars and occupation.
According to the Chinese Cultural Relics Association, more than 10 million Chinese cultural relics were taken from the country from 1840 to 1949, a large number of which are now stored at major public museums in Europe and the US.
The number of relics plundered from the Old Summer Palace alone is estimated at about 1.5 million, now housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.
A majority of them are being showcased in the British Museum and the Fontainebleau Art Museum in France, experts said.
China has been actively seeking the return of overseas relics during the past decade through purchases at international auctions, donations by private collectors or overseas Chinese, and increasingly through diplomatic means based on international conventions.
"We're open to any channel for the return of cultural relics," Song said.
Liu Xiangrui contributed to this story