The Summer Palace near Beijing was invaded and looted by British and French soldiers during the Second Opium War in the 19th century. The restored Palace and its garden are now listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
At one time, the central fountain clock at the Palace was decorated with 12 bronze animal heads, corresponding to the 12 symbols of the Chinese zodiac. These bronzes were part of the booty taken by the allied troops. While contemporary artists, including Ai Weiwei, have paid homage to the theme and the missing heads, the original bronzes have become a symbol of the Chinese efforts to recover their lost cultural heritage. In the late 1990s, the Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau joined forces to organize a museum, the Poly Art Museum in Beijing, for housing such returned treasures. Now, the Poly Art reportedly owns Monkey, Ox, Tiger and Pig heads. Another museum owns the Horse’s head (the Pig and the Horse were purchased and donated by Stanley Ho to two Chinese institutions).
Five of the bronzes remain missing, the others surfaced at auctions with Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Most recently, in 2009, Christie’s auctioned off two heads, Rat and Rabbit, during their sale of the Yves St. Laurent estate. The sale was opposed by the the Chinese culture preservation and restitution advocates; the winning bidder, a Chinese businessman, ended up reneging on his obligation to pay for the winning bid as a sign of protest, and the consignor decided to keep these bronzes for himself.
Nevertheless, four years later, on June 29, 2013, Rat and Rabbit were returned to Beijing by Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of the luxury goods company that owns Christie’s.
Pinault was quoted as saying “This donation is a token of our family’s appreciation for China as well as our passion for the preservation of art and cultural heritage.”
The timing of the return is conspicuous because auction houses vie for opportunities to sell to the Chinese art collectors and until recently there could not get a foothold in China. Christie’s was the first to hold Hong Kong based sales, and Christie’s is likely to be first to hold auctions in mainland China. On the same trip in April when Pinault discussed the return of the two bronze heads, he announced that Christie’s received a license enabling it to “become the first international auction house to operate independently on the Chinese mainland.” Another Christie’s representative present at the handover ceremony, the chief executive of Christie’s International, Steven P. Murphy, said “As one of the leading proponents of the importance of cultural heritage, Christie’s is delighted to have played an instrumental part in ensuring their return.”
- Graham Bowley, “Christie’s Leader Returns Ancient Bronzes to China,” The New York Times (June 28, 2013);
- Steven Erlanger, “China Fails to Halt Sale of Looted Relics at Paris Auction,” The New York Times (Feb. 26, 2009);
- Lillian M. Li, “The Garden of Perfect Brightness,” MIT Visualizing Cultures.
- Center for Art Law, “China Wants its Rabbit and Rat Back” (2011)