By Terril Yue Jones
BEIJING (Reuters) - The family of a French billionaire and art collector eased a sore point in history on Friday by returning two bronze animal heads, among Chinese treasures pillaged from a Beijing palace by French and British troops more than a century and a half ago.
The sculptures, of a rabbit and a rat, are among 12 animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac that were looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860 by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War.
The mystery of the heads' whereabouts and lengthy efforts by Chinese authorities to retrieve them have built up a mystique around the artifacts.
"By returning these two marvels to China, my family is loyal to its commitment to preserving national heritage and artistic creation," said Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of luxury and retail group Kering, at a ceremony at China's National Museum alongside Tiananmen Square.
Pinault's father, Francois Pinault, and Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong pulled red silk covers off the small busts to unveil them in front of reporters.
The animal heads were part of a fountain at the Old Summer Palace, known as Yuanmingyuan in Chinese. Today the palace grounds are an extensive park, with the rubble of smashed buildings kept intentionally in place as a reminder of how China was ransacked at the hands of Britain, France and other foreign powers.
To date, seven of the Chinese animal heads have been found and are now in museums in Beijing.
"This gesture is an expression of deep friendship with the Chinese people," Chinese Vice Minister of Culture Li Xiaojie said.
The Pinault family bought the heads from a private collector who had bought them at auction for 14.9 million euros ($18.3 million dollars) each, the People's Daily newspaper said this week.
"For my family it is above all a contribution to the promotion of art, and the preservation of an important cultural heritage," Pinault said. "We always have the desire to accompany our enterprises with gestures and actions not necessarily economic or financial, but environmental or in the artistic domain."
The brand portfolio of Kering, which until March of this year was known as PPR, includes Gucci, Stella McCartney, Balenciaga and St. Laurent Paris.
The Pinault family also controls the famed Chateau Latour vineyard in Bordeaux, the French magazine Le Point and Swiss economic newspaper L'Agefi.
While preserving and restoring art are motivations for the Pinault family members, their philanthropy will also likely benefit the company's ventures into the huge Chinese market.
In December, Kering made its first acquisition in China - a majority stake in fine jeweller Qeelin - and said more small deals could follow in this country, a critical and growing market for western luxury goods.
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Nick Macfie)