BEIJING -- One of France's wealthiest businessmen has agreed to return to China two bronze animal heads that were looted from the imperial Summer Palace near Beijing by invading French and British troops in the 19th century, according to a report on Friday by China Radio International, a state news organization. To China, the looting of the palace epitomizes the humiliation it suffered at the hands of imperial Western powers during the Second Opium War.
The offer to return the heads came from François-Henri Pinault, one of 60 high-powered Frenchmen who are accompanying the French president,François Hollande, this week on his first visit to China. Mr. Hollande is seeking to strengthen diplomatic and trade relations with China, and also brought eight cabinet ministers.
Mr. Hollande has received a warm welcome since landing in Beijing on Thursday. The previous French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, angered Chinese leaders after he met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, in 2008, months after a widespread Tibetan uprising in western China.
"It is easy to forget, watching China emerge as a great power, that the legacy of humiliation at the hands of modern imperialist aggressors back in the 19th century retains a palpable sense of immediacy even today," said John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul who, with Orville Schell, is writing a book on China's quest for wealth and power. "So what might seem a rather obscure gesture of returning a pair of bronze animal heads takes on outsized significance as a kind of restitution of historical justice, a long-awaited righting of wrongs to the Chinese nation."
The bronzes emerged as a point of contention between China and France in 2009, when Christie's auction house handled the sale of the French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's vast art collection after his death. Mr. Pinault is the chief executive officer of Kering, the company that owns Christie's.
After China failed to block the sale legally, a Chinese businessman made successful bids totaling about $40 million for the heads, then refused to pay, citing national pride.
According to Mr. Pinault's company, Mr. Pinault acquired them himself and decided to return them to China, which just this month decided to allow Christie's to become the first international auction house to operate independently on the mainland. Mr. Pinault told Chinese officials that the heads would be returned by the second half of this year.
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage in China said Mr. Pinault's offer was "an expression of friendship toward the Chinese people," according to a state news report.
"The Chinese side offers its high praise for this action and considers that it conforms with the spirit of relevant international cultural heritage protection treaties," the government agency said.
The two bronzes, a rat head and a rabbit head, were among 12 animal heads, replicating the Chinese zodiac, in a central fountain clock at the palace, spewing water to tell time. All disappeared after the palace, also known as Yuanmingyuan and used by rulers of the Qing dynasty, was destroyed by Western troops in 1860.
So iconic are the animal heads that Ai Weiwei, the rebel artist, made a sculpture with versions of all 12. Typical of Mr. Ai, the sculpture was constructed with a sense of irony. It was first displayed in May 2011 at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan while Mr. Ai was being illegally detained in Beijing by security forces, and it quickly came to symbolize the constant conflict in China over issues of free speech.
The China Poly Group, a state-owned enterprise with ties to the People's Liberation Army that has a museum and theater in Beijing, has acquired several of the animal heads, but the owners and locations of the rest remain unknown.
Mr. Pinault, 50, is the son of Kering's founder,François Pinault, an art collector. The gift was from the Pinault family. The company has significant stakes in China, where some of its fashion brands, like Gucci, are doing well.
France has a significant trade deficit with China and wants more Chinese investment. But the French president is under some pressure to raise human rights issues with the new Communist Party leadership. Mr. Hollande doled out his criticisms more freely when he was simply the leader of the Socialist Party.
Mr. Hollande wants to reassure the Chinese that his government will protect the security of Chinese tourists in France and intends to discuss making it easier for Chinese to obtain visas.
Mr. Sarkozy had tendentious relations with Beijing after the meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2008. Relations deteriorated that year when Western and Tibetan protesters interrupted the Olympic torch relay when it passed through Paris on the way to Beijing.
Tensions eased just before France took the presidency of the Group of 20 in 2010. Ties became strained again when France criticized China's reluctance to support the battle against Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator.
Edward Wong reported from Beijing, and Steven Erlanger from Paris.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.