BEIJING (AP) — China's National Museum on Friday unveiled a pair of Qing dynasty bronzes that were looted from a Beijing palace more than 150 years ago and returned this year by the family that runs French luxury-goods conglomerate Kering.
The recovery of the bronze heads of a rat and rabbit is a major victory for China's campaign to erase a legacy of past bullying by foreign powers, but also a masterful stroke of corporate public relations for a firm seeking fat profits from newly wealthy Chinese consumers with a growing taste for luxury.
The bronzes were among 12 animal heads that formed the centerpieces of an elaborate zodiac fountain and were carried off during the sacking of the old Summer Palace in Beijing by French and British troops in 1860 at the close of the Second Opium War.
The palace's buildings were burned and left in ruins as a punishment for the Qing emperor's obstinacy, and the bronzes spirited abroad into private hands.
China has made a priority of recovering them in recent years amid burgeoning pride in the country's economic achievements and a desire to reconstruct its former cultural and political glory. Five have already been returned to China and one is in Taiwan, but the whereabouts of four others remain unknown.
The symbolism of the bronzes derives from their origins in the reign of the Qing emperor Qianlong during the second half of the 17th century, a time when the empire's power, prestige and national territory were at their zenith.
Designed by the Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, they had been part of a rococco clepsydra, or water clock, placed in the forecourt of a pavilion inspired by Versailles.
The sacking of the palace, by contrast, stood as one of the major humiliations in the country's so-called century of shame that ended, according to the ruling Communist Party, only with the success of the revolution in 1949.
The fact that they are being returned by a company representing one of the nations that carried out the violation heightens the gesture's importance for Chinese who tend to equate nations with their business and cultural interests, said Joseph Cheng, China politics expert at the City University of Hong Kong.
"It shows that China is now in a position to win back these treasures," Cheng said.
The bronzes had been owned by the French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and were put up for auction in 2009 following his death. China strongly protested the sale and the auction was botched after a Chinese businessman refused to honor his winning bid of $40 million.
They were later acquired by the family of Kering Group CEO Francois-Henri Pinault, whose company owns a stable of luxury brands that includes Gucci and Saint Laurent.
For Kering, formerly known as PPR, the donation is a smart PR move that shows respect for Chinese consumers who often feel slighted by Western luxury brands that do little to cater to their sensibilities, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group.
"It shows respect and shows that Kering is a friend of China," Rein said.
That also reflects the values of newly rich Chinese, who take it as a point of pride to buy or bid on remnants of China's cultural heritage that have flowed overseas from porcelain vases to rare manuscripts.
Macau casino billionaire Stanley Ho blazed a trail for the Pinault family with his own purchase of the horse's head from the Qing bronze zodiac in 2007 for $8.9 million that prevented it from being auctioned off by Sotheby's. Ho donated the piece to the Chinese government and it is displayed in a Beijing museum.
China's Cultural Relics Association estimates that more than 10 million cultural relics were taken overseas between 1840 and 1949, with many of them now displayed in museums in Europe and the U.S.
It says about 1.5 million pieces alone were taken from the old summer palace, known as the Yuanmingyuan, which are now spread across more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.
The donation "will really resonate with wealthy Chinese who almost see it as a duty to bring back China's cultural heritage," Rein said.
Chinese consumers, whose taste for expensive brands has continued to grow through the global recession, will account for about a 20 percent share of luxury sales by 2015 worth around $27 billion, according to business consultants McKinsey & Co. China's major cities now burst with boutiques and show rooms for pricey goods from exclusive automobiles to vintage wines.
While Kering needs to exercise good taste in leveraging the bronzes for marketing purposes, it could use them to heighten the sense of exclusivity by offering viewings as a perk for VIP customers, Rein said.
"But already, the public relations and word of mouth they've gained just by people reading about it has been huge," Rein said.