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China Internet users celebrate return of rare bronzes by French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault
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).- Chinese Internet users celebrated the return of two rare bronze animal heads looted by European powers more than a century ago, underlining continued popular demands to redress what state-approved history books call colonial "humiliation".

French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault on Friday handed the bronzes, one of a rabbit and one of a rat, back to China after they were looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War.

The bronzes shot to fame in 2009, when a Chinese bidder offered 14 million euros for each at an auction, but refused to pay on the grounds that the artefacts were part of the country's national heritage and had been removed illegally.

The return of the eighteenth century bronzes was a proud occasion for Chinese patriots, many of whom see the nineteenth century -- when foreign powers occupied parts of China by military force -- as a period of national humiliation still in need of redress.

China's ruling Communist Party has long gained public support by presenting itself as restoring the country's sovereignty and pride following the period, and current President Xi Jinping has appealed to similar sentiments by vowing a "great renaissance of the Chinese nation".

"Cultural inheritance lost in other countries, however big or small their value, we support their return to China," one user of China's Sina Weibo social media service, which is similar to Twitter, said.

"Its a delight that this cultural inheritance has come back to China," wrote another.

Pinault revealed that he had acquired the two bronzes from Pierre Berge -- the partner of late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent who put the heads up for auction in 2009.

The buyer in that auction was later publicly identified as Cai Mingchao, an expert with China's National Treasures Fund, a private foundation responsible for buying overseas Chinese works of art on behalf of the government.

The dispute took a political twist when Berge said that he was "ready to give these Chinese heads to China if they are ready to recognise human rights", leading China's state-run Xinhua news agency to accuse him of "kidnapping cultural relics with human rights".

Chinese lawyers at the time said they would sue auction giant Christie's over the sale of the relics.

Pinault handed them back to China on Friday in a high-profile ceremony at the National Museum of China opposite Tiananmen Square, with scores of media and Chinese Politburo member Liu Yandong in attendance.

Some said the ceremony at the museum -- which showcases the Communist Party endorsed narrative of national rejuvenation -- was not enough to redress past injustices.

"These (bronzes) belonged to us in the first place and of course should be returned. It's embarrassing they held a donation ceremony for it now," one Sina Weibo user wrote.

Others called for the return of hundreds of other relics lost during the nineteenth century that are yet to be recovered by China.

"Welcome to be homed in the National Museum!" a user wrote. "What about the others, can you please donate them all to China?"

The bronzes were built during the reign of the Qing emperor Qianlong during the second half of the 17th century, when China's power was at its peak, making their looting a powerful symbol of China's relative decline in global influence.

They were reportedly designed by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary in China.

The then British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin -- whose father had purchased marble sculptures from Greece's Parthenon, leading to a dispute over relics between Britain and Greece which lasts to this day -- ordered the destruction of the Palace.

The Palace, now a series of ruined columns and destroyed walls, has been converted into a "patriotic education base" where visiting school children learn about China's past subjugation by foreign powers.

More than 10 million of China's relics were taken overseas between 1840 and 1949, the country's Cultural Relics Association estimates, including about 1.5 million pieces from the Old Summer Palace.

Recovering the relics -- now distributed in museums across the world but mainly in Europe and the US -- has become a priority for China's government, as well as wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs who have bought back the objects at auction.

Gambling billionaire Stanley Ho, who owns casinos in the Chinese region of Macau, bought one of the Zodiac heads at auction for $8.9 million and later donated it to China's National Museum.

The return of the rat and the rabbit heads to China means that seven of the 12 looted bronzes have now been returned, the state-run China Radio International reported.

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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