How the missing Zodiac fountain heads continue to be a sore point for China

Several have appeared at auction in recent years; the whereabouts of five remain unknown


London. The 12 bronze animal heads looted from the Zodiac fountain in the Old Summer Palace have come to symbolise China’s losses. Dating from the time of the Qianlong emperor (1736-95), the water clock was designed by the Italian Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione and represents an important blending of Chinese and European art. They were looted by British and French troops in the Second Opium War in 1860.

Three of the heads—the ox, tiger and monkey—were bought for $4m in 2000 by the Poly Group for its Beijing museum. In 2003 Stanley Ho, who ran the Macau casino, bought the pig for $800,000 and donated it to the Poly Museum (see below).

In 2007 the horse was to have been auctioned by Sotheby’s, but shortly before the sale it was withdrawn and offered to Ho for $8.9m. Sotheby’s specialist Nicolas Chow told us last month: “In view of Chinese sensitivities, we felt it would be best to sell the horse privately to someone who would repatriate it to China.” It is currently displayed in the foyer of the Hotel Grand Lisboa in Macau, although ultimately it has been promised to a museum in China (presumably the Poly).

In 2009 the rabbit and rat came up at the Yves Saint Laurent sale, when Cai Mingchao (below) bid E28m. He subsequently refused to pay, as a protest over the sale, and the bronzes were then returned to Saint Laurent’s former partner, Pierre Bergé. The whereabouts of five of the animals remain unknown—the dragon, snake, sheep, rooster and dog.

Artist Ai Weiwei, recently arrested by the Chinese authorities, has made a work based on the zodiac heads which will be presented in the courtyard of London’s Somerset House. It will open on 12 May and run until 26 June. It is then due to travel to America, opening in New York’s Central Park before going on to Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Most desired: the missing Zodiac fountain heads'