By  on April 27, 2013

PARIS — In a gesture sure to be burnish the image of its luxury brands in a crucial market, France's Pinault family, which controls Kering, has donated to China two rare animal sculptures from the Qing dynasty.

Once owned by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, the rat and rabbit bronze fountainheads were shrouded in controversy when Bergé put them on the block in 2009 as part of blockbuster auction that fetched 373.5 million euros, or $484.6 million at then exchange rates.

At the time, Christie’s fended off court action that sought to prevent it from selling the two works, part of a sale of 700 pieces of art belonging to Bergé and the late couturier. The Association for the Protection of the Arts of China in Europe (APACE) had argued the heads, among 12 taken from the Summer Palace of the Emperor Qianlong in Beijing during the Opium Wars, should be returned to China.

The heads sold to anonymous telephone bidders for 15.7 million euros, or $20 million, each.

In a statement, the Pinault family said it "went to great efforts to retrieve these two significant treasures of China and strongly believe they belong in their rightful home."

"The forward-looking vision of China’s new leadership outlines a harmonious co-operation and co-existence with other communities around the world and this has inspired us to take part in contributing to the development of art and culture and the preservation of cultural heritage in China," said François-Henri Pinault, Kering's chairman and chief executive officer.

He noted the Pinaults would work closely with China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage to "finalize the time as early as possible to house these national treasures. The family would like to acknowledge Christie’s role in facilitating this return."

Christie's is also controlled by the Pinault family.

Formerly known as PPR, Kering has a strong presence in China and relies on Chinese clients for its various luxury and sport/lifestyle businesses.

Reporting first-quarter revenues last week, Kering noted that the Asia Pacific region accounted for 38 percent of Gucci's sales, 42 percent of Bottega Veneta's, 20 percent of Yves Saint Laurent's and 13 percent of Puma's.

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