Ancient Chinese Treasure Recovered

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Gambling has come to the rescue of China's cultural patrimony. A Macau casino tycoon purchased a bronze horse head that was looted from Beijing's former Summer Palace in the 19th century and has donated it to China. Sotheby's Hong Kong announced Thursday that Stanley Ho paid $8.84 million for the piece, a record for Qing dynasty sculpture.

The sale has calmed what threatened to be a highly controversial auction in Hong Kong next month. Sotheby's originally planned to sell the bronze — which was previously owned by a collector in Taiwan — at auction along with 30 pieces that were mostly traced to Qing palaces. A Chinese government-linked organization responsible for recovering looted cultural artifacts opposed selling the head at auction because there was no assurance that it would end up in China.

The horse head is a particularly symbolic artifact to China. It was one of 12 pieces representing the Chinese zodiac that were crafted by Jesuit missionaries. They sat atop sculptures of human bodies to form a water clock in the Summer Palace, the home of the royal family. The clock, which was designed so each head would spout water for two hours each day and all would spray in unison at noon, was said to be a favorite of the Qianlong emperor.

In October 1860, during the Second Opium War, French and British troops sacked the summer palace. The destruction was one of the most humiliating moments of China's long period of colonial subjugation. During the attack the bronze heads were pried from their plinths and the looters took them around the world. The whereabouts of just seven are now known, and with this purchase five of those will be in China's hands. "Bringing back all the things from the Summer Palace, it's a kind of revenge, a way to avenge the humiliation," says Chiu Che Bing, a Paris-based architect and advisor on the restoration of the palace gardens.

The China Poly Group, an arms dealer linked to the People's Liberation Army, purchased the ox, tiger and monkey in 2000 and now has them on display in its Beijing museum. Ho bought the pig in 2003 from a New York collector and donated it to China. It is now also in the Poly Group museum. The rabbit and the rat are in private European collections.

The Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program praised Ho's latest purchase and donation: "We hope to see more people become interested in the loss of national treasures overseas, and through public means can contribute to their return home," program head Niu Xianfeng said in a written statement. The Chinese government also endorsed Ho's generosity. "We are glad to witness the homecoming of the Bronze horse head after its expatriation for nearly one and a half centuries," China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced in a written statement.

The possibility that the bronze could have also ended up outside China angered nationalists. But Sotheby's argued that it would likely have ended up on the mainland even if it went to auction. "We were quite confident that the object there stood a very good chance of falling into the hands of a Chinese collector, bearing in mind the search and demand and interest of mainland Chinese collectors for important works of Chinese art, especially those of great historical significance," says Kevin Ching, CEO of Sotheby's Asia. For China's wealthy new elite, buying Chinese artifacts from abroad has become a symbol of both status and patriotism. The Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program even leads trips to auctions and galleries abroad to put Chinese collectors in touch with sellers.

Some preservationists argue that the presence of Chinese artifacts in foreign museums actually helped prevent their destruction during China's violent Cultural Revolution, when many symbols of the past, including what remained of the old Summer Palace, were demolished by bands of Red Guards. But Niu argues that what might have happened in the past is a different question from what should happen now. The group he leads focuses on using China's growing wealth rather than calls for voluntary repatriation to bring the works back. Ho, an 85-year-old billionaire who made most of his fortune running a 40-year casino monopoly, is the most prominent example of the trend. "I hope this will encourage more people to join efforts in preserving China's cultural relics and nurture patriotic feelings," he said in a statement.

The horse will be displayed October 4-8 in Hong Kong as part of Sotheby's auction preview. Then it moves to Ho's Hotel Grand Lisboa in Macau. Its final destination hasn't been announced, though there is speculation it will end up in the Poly Museum with the other heads. "If the statue of the horse, the monkey, the ox, the tiger and the pig join together again after being scattered for 147 years, it will be an exciting feat," Niu said. "We are full of expectation."