Masters of Renaissance art including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are making their public debut in China at a major exhibition ongoing in Beijing.
Running until February 20 at the National Art Museum of China, it features 111 Renaissance and Baroque works.
The French Government bought them from a private collection in the country at the end of 2003, shortly before they were to be auctioned in New York and London. Moneys to help secure the pieces remained in France came from the retail giant Carrefour who put up 11 million euros (US$14.3 million).
"It's the first time for these important pieces to be shown to the public after they were purchased and consigned to the collections of the Louvre Museum and five other major museums around France," said Robert Fohr from the French Ministry of Culture, referring to the Beijing exhibition.
"I expect art lovers in China to appreciate the works with as much passion as I have," said Philippe Rabit, vice-president of the Carrefour Group ahead of the exhibition opening on February 5.
After the close of the exhibition this Sunday, the collection will travel to Rome and then back to Paris.
"It gives a bird's-eye view of the various schools of art that prospered in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries, including the Venetian, Roman, Florentine and Sienna schools, and also art by those Italian artists living in France in the 16th century, who founded the Fontainebleau school," said Carel van Tyull van Serooskerken, director of the fine art and painting department of the Louvre, on the eve of the show's opening.
"Though the show includes no famous pieces by Renaissance masters, visitors can glimpse the active cultural life of great diversity in the 16th-century Europe," he added.
Serooskerken noted that the exhibition is a rare chance for to see rarely displayed sketches by masters from the period.
Such include "Count Ugolino" by Da Vinci, "The Reading Sybille" by Michelangelo and "The Saint Family and Little Saint Jean" by Polidoro Da Caravaggio.
Among the works on display are two sketches by the Italian High Renaissance painter Paris Bordone (1500-71), which are ranked "national treasures" in France, and which cannot travel out of the country without government approval.
Some artists involved at the exhibition have long been forgotten.
"Their names are little known not only in China but also in France. Only art historians read about them in files," said Serooskerken.
But he urged art lovers not to overlook those pieces at the show.
"It was only when I stood before a portrait by Federico Barocci, whose name I had never heard of before, that I realized how graceful and impressive the work was," he said.
"To judge a piece of art, one should always stand before it. Never do it solely by the artist's fame," he added.