Christie’s Announces Return of Zodiac Heads to China

Donation by Pinault Family Cements New China Chapter 

The rat and rabbit zodiac heads that initially sparked controversy when they were put up for auction by Christie's in 2009. (AP)

The rat and rabbit zodiac heads that initially sparked controversy when they were put up for auction by Christie’s in 2009. (AP)

On the heels of Christie’s groundbreaking deal to become the first auction house permitted to operate independently on the mainland, one longtime thorn in the company’s relationship with China has reached an amicable — and skillfully diplomatic — resolution.

A press release sent out today by Christie’s CEO Steven Murphy announced that Francois-Henri Pinault, owner of Christie’s and CEO of luxury-goods conglomerate Kering, has donated two bronze zodiac heads of a rabbit and rat — looted by British troops during the Qing dynasty — to China. The gift comes four years after the Chinese government first raised strong objections to the heads’ coming to auction in the 2009 Yves Saint Laurent sale. At the time, the heads were won by a Chinese bidder, but the sale was never completed.

According to today’s release, “Francois-Henri Pinault met this morning with the senior official from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) to announce that the bronze rabbit and rat zodiac heads will be returned to China and the Chinese people as a donation from the Pinault family.”

After Christie’s received the right to hold auctions in China several weeks ago, speculation abounded as to how they had managed the rapprochement with the government after the anger sparked by the heads. In addition to improving ties with officials, today’s move is likely to placate the growing base of wealthy Chinese collectors, as the original dispute had sparked intense public outcry among Chinese citizens and even inspired a nationalistic martial arts film starring Jackie Chan.

“I am very proud that Christie’s has played a vital role in facilitating this return. It is particularly exciting to announce this news following a wonderful week in China with all our colleagues here,” said Murphy.

It is unclear when Pinault came to acquire the heads, as the controversy was initially sparked while they were owned by Saint Laurent’s surviving partner, Pierre Bergé, who argued China had no legal right to them. This donation is advantageous not only for Christie’s but for Kering, which owns such luxury brands as Gucci and Alexander McQueen.

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