Hand-cast in 1750, the 10 windows, weighing about a ton, were spirited out of the palace grounds at the turn of the century. The official Chinese line is that they were taken by foreign forces sent in to crush the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. But it is just as possible they were smuggled out by eunuchs and court insiders doing business on the side. The pavilion, originally called the Bronze Pagoda, was renamed the 'Empty Pavilion'.
The windows first turned up in 1910 in Shanghai, venue for many an auction of precious state treasures to the colonial powers. They were purchased by a Mr Henriot, the French director of the Banque de Indochine in China. They were shipped to Europe in 1912 and remained in the same family.
In the mid-Eighties the family decided to cash in on the inheritance and sent the windows to an antiques dealer in Paris. They were offered for sale at regular intervals, but because no one knew what had happened to other windows from the pavilion, they failed to find a buyer. 'What's one set worth if you do not know where the others are?' says William Burris, managing director of Bradbury (International) Ltd, a British company which organises fine art and antiquities exhibitions.
Mr Burris has done business in China for a decade and when he visited the Paris art dealer at the end of last year he was taken to see to see 'something different' in a back room. 'It was the most beautiful casting work I had ever seen,' he said. (The frames surrounding latticed panels are carved with clouds and five-clawed dragons.) 'As soon as I saw them, I thought, these things are pretty important . . . they belonged back in China.'
He approached American International Group (AIG), an insurance company, which agreed to buy the windows for dollars 515,000 ( pounds 350,000) if their authenticity could be proved. At the same time, teams of solicitors, including Gouldens, the company used by the Queen, began work on the problem of repatriating items now classed as French national treasure.
A dossier on the windows was delivered to China, but suspicions were aroused when a fax was received just four hours later, guaranteeing that they were the real thing.
'AIG was very suspicious. They wanted to know how the Chinese could make such a quick decision,' said Mr Burris. In April, Mr Burris went to Peking to seek - as Deng Xiaoping would say - truth from facts. 'I told them, 'You've got to tell me how you know]' ' The meetings dragged on. 'Finally the phone call came. They had approval to reveal a Chinese state secret.'
About 15 minutes later, a small group of workers came into the room bringing something heavy wrapped in a cloth. It was another window. During all those decades the Chinese had secretly hoarded the other windows 'missing' from the pavilion. 'If people had known, they (the owners) could have named their price. The Taiwanese would have paid anything to keep the set in France out of the hands of the Chinese and put them in their own museum,' Mr Burris said.
AIG went through with the purchase, the first time a foreign company had bought a Chinese relic in order to return it to its homeland. The windows were shipped back to China in July, installed in their rightful place, and at the beginning of this month an official ceremony was held at the pavilion, where restoration work is now nearly completed. Re-named the Baoyunge - the word for an old Buddhist monk - the pavilion will soon be open to the public.
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