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The bronze horse head, dated circa 1750, is from a series of 12 zodiac animal sculptures that once adorned a fountain at Beijing’s Old Summer Palace. Photo: AP

Bronze horse head, donated by late Stanley Ho, becomes first of zodiac collection returned to Beijing’s Old Summer Palace after theft in 1860s

  • The piece is one of 12 sculptures representing the Chinese zodiac stolen from the palace during the Second Opium War’s Anglo-French invasion
  • While five remain unaccounted for, six others have been secured and currently reside in museums
Stanley Ho
Beijing on Tuesday welcomed home a 160-year-old bronze horse head statue to the Old Summer Palace from which it was stolen, a donation from Macau’s late casino king Stanley Ho Hung-sun.

It is one of 12 bronze animal head sculptures representing the Chinese zodiac that were part of a fountain at the palace known as the Yuanmingyuan.

The pieces were stolen from Beijing in 1860 when Anglo-French troops invaded China during the Second Opium War and left the site burned and reduced largely to rubble.

The Chinese state’s watchdog for cultural relics, the National Cultural Heritage Administration, said the horse head marked the first important piece of Yuanmingyuan’s missing relic to return to its home, according to state media. Six other pieces previously brought back to China are being exhibited in museums.

The late casino mogul Stanley Ho (left) bought the horse head for US$8.9 million in 2007 and later donated it to China. Photo: SCMP
Ho, the patriarch of Asia’s largest casino empire for half a century, bought the artefact for US$8.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in 2007, displaying the horse head in the city and neighbouring Macau for more than a decade.

Ho later donated the 160-year-old sculpture to the Chinese government in 2019, before the “King of Gambling” passed away on May 26 this year.

The Chinese Communist Party has portrayed the stolen animal heads as symbols of the nation’s “century of humiliation,” which started in the mid-19th century and ended when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Over that period, China was invaded by numerous colonial powers.

Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, was burned and looted during the Second Opium War in 1860. Photo: Xinhua

On Tuesday, the National Cultural Heritage Administration and Beijing People‘s Government hosted a ceremony to celebrate the return of the looted artefact under the care of the Yuanmingyuan administration.

Liu Yuzhu, director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, was quoted by state media as saying the repatriation of the horse head represented “a successful example of the return of lost cultural relics in the new era.”

Over the past two decades, wealthy collectors have been buying the looted antiques at art auctions and returned them. To date, including the bronze horse figure, seven of the 12 animal head sculptures had been returned to China.

Ho also paid HK$6 million for the collection’s pig head in 2003, donating it to the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.

The statues representing the Chinese zodiac signs of the dog, rooster, dragon, sheep and snake remain missing.

The Post contacted the Ho family for comment.