Old Summer Palace bronze heads

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The original figures in a drawing before the looting with all 12 head figures
The site of the water Fountain in 2013

The Twelve Old Summer Palace bronze heads are a collection of bronze fountainheads in the shape of the Chinese zodiac animals that were part of a water clock fountain in front of the Haiyantang (Chinese: 海晏堂; pinyin: Hǎiyàntáng) building of the Xiyang Lou (Western style mansions) area of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. Believed to have been designed by the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione for the Qianlong Emperor, the statues would spout out water from their mouths to tell the time.[1][2]

The bronze-cast heads of the stone statues were among the treasures looted during the destruction of the Old Summer Palace by British and French expeditionary forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.[3] Since then, they have been among the most visible examples of attempts to repatriate Chinese art and cultural artifacts. Two of the heads, the rat and the rabbit, were formerly held by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and were the subject of an international scandal (2009 auction of Old Summer Palace bronze heads).

The Poly Museum (New Beijing Poly Plaza), a museum in Beijing owned and operated by China Poly Group Corporation, a state-owned Chinese business group enterprise, is filled with repatriated artworks, including several of the animal fountainheads. China Poly bought the tiger, monkey, and ox through auction houses in Hong Kong in 2000, while the pig’s head was recovered in New York by Hong Kong casino magnate Stanley Ho, who in turn donated it to the Poly Museum.[4]

The CEO of Poly Culture (an offshoot of China Poly Group focused on art-repatriation and antiquities), Jiang Yingchun, has been quoted as saying: "The heads represent our feelings for the entire nation; we love them and we weep for them. We can try many ways to get the heads back. The auction is just one method. We can't ignore that the art was taken illegally,” even if it was being well cared for, he said. “If you kidnapped my children and then treated them well, the crime is still not forgiven."[5]

Current status[edit]

Photo Animal Year recovered Current location Cost Notes
Rat 2013 National Museum of China[6] $18 million at hammer price Yves Saint Laurent's collection. Christie's, 2009.

Donated by François Pinault (Christie's owner) in a ceremony on June 28, 2013[6]

Ox 2000 Poly Art Museum, Beijing USD $0,98 million Sotheby's London, June 1989.

By Christie's Hong Kong, 2000.[7] From China Poly Group Corp.

Tiger 2000 Poly Art Museum, Beijing USD $1,98 million Sotheby's London, June 1989.

By Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2000.[7] From China Poly Group Corp.

(4th from left)
Rabbit 2013 National Museum of China[6] $18 million at hammer price Yves Saint Laurent's collection. Christie's, 2009

Donated by François Pinault in a ceremony on June 28, 2013[6]

Dragon 2018 unknown - Possibly sold on December 17, 2018 at auction house Tessier & Sarrou et Associés for $3.4 million[8]
Snake - unknown - -
Horse 2007 Capital Museum[9] US$8.9 million Sotheby's London, June 1989, 400,000 USD.

From Stanley Ho, by Sotheby's Hong Kong

Goat - unknown - -
Monkey 2000 Poly Art Museum, Beijing US$1.03 million New York, 1987.

By Christie's Hong Kong, 2000[7] From China Poly Group Corp.

(3rd from right)
Rooster - unknown - -
Dog - unknown - In 2003 a Hong Kong auction house planned to sell the fake[9]
Pig 2003 Poly Art Museum, Beijing[9] US$0.77 million New York, 1987.[7]

From Stanley Ho[9]

In culture[edit]

  • Ai Weiwei in 2010 created his own interpretation of 12 heads "The Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads", where 5 were recreated.[10] It exists in bronze and gold versions.[11] Sold for $4.4 million.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CSmonitor.com. "CSmonitor.com." China protests Christie's auction in Paris of relics. Retrieved on 2009-02-20.
  2. ^ BBC News: Chinese zodiac statues' origins
  3. ^ Wtop.com. "Wtop.com." French judges allows auction of Chinese artifacts. Retrieved on 2009-02-20.
  4. ^ Demick, Barbara (2009). "Bronze heads gnaw at China". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 May 2021.
  5. ^ "The Great Chinese Art Heist". GQ. 2018-08-16. Retrieved 2022-07-20.
  6. ^ a b c d "Looted Bronzes Return To China: Animal Heads Were Taken From Beijing Palace In 1860". Huffington Post. June 28, 2013. Retrieved June 30, 2013.
  7. ^ a b c d Peter Hays Gries, Stanley Rosen. State and Society in 21st Century China: Crisis, Contention and Legitimation
  8. ^ "Has Another Old Summer Palace Zodiac Fountain Head Been Found?". Antiques And The Arts Weekly. 2019-01-08. Retrieved 2021-08-13.
  9. ^ a b c d Li, Lillian (2012). "Relics & Controversy: The Controversy Surrounding the 12 Zodiac Animal Heads". The Garden of Perfect Brightness III: Destruction, Looting, and Memory (1860-Present). Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 2012-11-10.
  10. ^ Telegraph. The meaning of Ai Weiwei's 12 Zodiac Heads
  11. ^ "Home". zodiacheads.com.
  12. ^ Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads Hit $4.4 Million at $26.9 Million Phillips London Contemporary Art Evening Sale // ArtNet

External links[edit]