Chinese cultural relics officials are trying to bring home, but not buy back, two bronze animal heads due to be auctioned in Paris in February.
The rabbit and the mouse heads are part of 12 animal sculptures that decorated the Calm Sea Pavilion of Yuanmingyuan Park (the Old Summer Palace) during Emperor Qianlong's reign (1736-95) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The heads were stolen by invading foreign troops in 1860 when the Anglo-French allied forces looted the park and burnt it down.
According to a press release from Christie's, the world's leading auction house, the two pieces will be put under the hammer between Feb 23 and 25 during the sale of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berg Collection. Each of them is expected to raise between 8 million and 10 million euros ($10-12 million).
"We have already taken action to try to bring the two pieces back," Niu Xianfeng, deputy director of China's Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Fund, told China Daily on Friday.
He said the fund, a nongovernmental organization set up to retrieve Chinese relics lost overseas, contacted the agents for the two relics in 2003 and 2004, but could not accept their price of $10 million each.
"At that time, we bought back the pig's head for less than $1 million. We think the offered prices are unreasonable and unacceptable," Niu said.
Thanks to the efforts of some Chinese enterprises and Macao tycoon Stanley Ho, five of the 12 bronze animal heads have been brought back to China.
"The mouse's and rabbit's heads are probably the only two pieces existing in the world as the other five heads are still missing," Niu said.
But Chinese cultural officials have reiterated the government will not purchase back what should rightfully belong to the country.
"We always maintain the same stance on the issue of cultural relics lost overseas," Song Xinchao, director of the museum department of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, told China Daily.
"We will not purchase things that belong to us."
Song's view was echoed by over 90 percent of the respondents to an online survey on Sina.com, a major Web portal in China. Most of them said China should ask for the return of the national treasures in accordance with related international conventions.
According to the Chinese Cultural Relics Association, more than 10 million Chinese culture relics were taken from the country from 1840. About 1.6 million of these relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.