In a bizarre twist of fate, a rabbit and a rat became the center of an international dispute between China and France in 2009. For these animals were part of a famed collection of Chinese bronze zodiac heads which featured on the Ten Most Wanted Antiquities list by the Antiquities Coalition . Their intricate story sheds light on the challenges of combating looting and cultural racketeering.
Crafted in the mid-18th century by an Italian Jesuit for the esteemed Quianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty , the twelve zodiac heads were originally part of a grand water clock fountain within the Yuanming Yuan , also known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness. These exquisite works of art adorned the imperial retreat of the Old Summer Palace near Beijing, designed to be a paradise on earth for Qing royalty.
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, Anglo-French troops launched an offensive to force China to open its borders to Western commerce. As a retaliatory measure for the Qing government’s capture and torture of an Anglo-French delegation, 4,000 soldiers ravaged the Summer Palace over three devastating days, obliterating the vast 860-acre complex. Priceless artworks were pillaged and subsequently scattered among museums and private collections. Sadly, this tragic event remains largely unknown outside of China.
Drawing depicting the giant water clock fountain with its twelve zodiac head figures at the Old Summer Palace near Beijing, from where the zodiac heads were looted. ( Public domain )
The stolen zodiac heads symbolize China’s past humiliation, serving as a poignant reminder of the nation’s suffering. Today, the ruins of the Old Summer Palace have been transformed into a national landmark. The heist even inspired a Jackie Chan blockbuster, CZ12 (Chinese Zodiac) , depicting the hero’s daring quest to reclaim the intricately carved bronze animal heads.
Recovering the stolen antiquities has become a matter of national pride, leading the Chinese government to establish a treasure-hunting team tasked with identifying Chinese artifacts in US and European collections. Fortunately, China also benefits from a new generation of billionaires actively participating in the mission to reclaim Chinese heritage. In 2010, an auction house director remarked to China Daily that “buying looted artwork has become high-street fashion among China’s elite.”
The bronze rabbit and rat zodiac heads on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing after being donated to China by Francois-Henri Pinault, the owner of Christie’s. ( China Daily )
Poly Art Museum, a state-funded institution dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional Chinese culture and relics, successfully retrieved four of the twelve stolen zodiac heads (the ox, tiger, monkey and pig), while the Capitol Museum in Beijing holds the horse. Generously, billionaire Stanley Ho repatriated the pig and the horse to China.
However, when the rabbit and the rat were put up for auction by Christie’s from the late Yves Saint Laurent’s private collection, a fierce dispute erupted between China and France, leading to China condemning the sale. In a dramatic turn of events Francois-Henri Pinault, the owner of Christie’s, ultimately returned the bronze sculptures. The remaining five heads (the dog, rooster, goat, snake and dragon) remain unaccounted for.
Top image: Ai Weiwei’s exhibition of animal bronze heads, entitled the Circle of Animals, are replicas of the famous looted zodiac heads and part of a contemporary commentary on the Communist Party and its nationalistic discourse. Source: Public domain