The two bronze sculptures, representing the heads of a rabbit and a rat, were among 12 animal head sculptures that formed a zodiac-themed water clock decorating the Calm Sea Pavilion in the Old Summer Palace of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) in Beijing.
They were looted when the palace was burned down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) issued orders that entry and exit administrative departments for cultural heritage at all levels carefully vet "heritage items" that Christie's might seek to import or export, accusing the auction house of frequently selling cultural heritage items “illegally taken out of the country”.
In recent days Beijing has tried repeatedly to stop the auction on the grounds that it breached “international pacts and the consensus on the return of such artefacts to their original countries.”
The two sculptures belonged to an art collection from the estate of the late French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
Saint Laurent's partner Pierre Bergé, who put the pieces up for sale, said that he will return the two sculptures claimed by China, but only if “they [the Chinese authorities] are going to apply human rights, give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory.”
"If they do that, I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing,” he added.