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French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault to return relics bought at Christie's to China
A picture taken on February 21, 2009 shows a rabbit head, Chinese imperial bronze part of a prized art collection assembled by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, shown at a three-day exhibition, before going under the hammer by Christies on February 23-25. A dispute with China over cultural relics acquired by Yves Saint Laurent took a political twist Friday when the late designer's partner offered to trade them against human rights. China is demanding the return of two imperial bronzes that are part of a prized art collection assembled by Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, and which Berge is putting on the block February 23-25 in what has been called the "sale of the century." AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS GUILLOT

BEIJING (AFP).- French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault will return two rare Chinese relics whose auction in 2009 outraged Beijing, his company said on Friday during a visit to China by France's president.

China has vehemently protested the sale of artefacts it says were stolen in the 19th century when European powers began encroaching on its territory, and has successfully pressured for some sales to be cancelled.

The two bronze fountainheads owned by Pinault were taken along with many other relics in 1860, when British and French troops pillaged Beijing's Old Summer Palace during the Second Opium War.

The announcement came during French President Francois Hollande's two-day visit to China, which included a banquet Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other guests, including Pinault, the CEO of the luxury group PPR.

"Yesterday evening, Francois-Henri Pinault, at the state dinner with Xi Jinping, told him of his intention to hand them to China," said a spokesman for PPR, whose brands include Gucci and Puma.

The relics' previous owners -- late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge -- had auctioned the pieces at Christie's for about $20 million each.

The sale enraged Beijing, and a mystery Chinese bidder later said he would not pay and the items were returned to Berge.

The artefacts were then purchased by Pinault's family, the spokesman said. The businessman is married to actress Salma Hayek, and his father is the PPR group's founder, Francois Pinault.

In November two Chinese antiques were withdrawn from auction in Britain after the proposed sale sparked fury in China amid claims they were looted from the Old Summer Palace.

Beijing estimates 1.5 million relics were taken at the time, though historians say it is likely that some antiques were sold off by local dealers.

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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