A bronze horse head sculpture, a treasure of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace that went missing after Anglo-French allied forces’ looting 160 years ago, returned to its original palace home on Tuesday.
Macao’s gaming magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun had bought the bronze horse head and decided to donate it to the National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) and return it to its original home. Ho passed away on 26 May this year, aged 98.
It is the first time that a lost important cultural relic from the Old Summer Palace, or “Yuanmingyuan,” has been returned to and housed at its original location after being repatriated from overseas.
Twelve animal head sculptures once formed a zodiac water clock in Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan, built by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The originals were looted from the royal garden by Anglo-French allied forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-60).
The horse head, designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione and crafted by royal craftsmen, is an artistic blend of East and West and since it was bought by Stanley Ho it was exhibited in the Grand Lisboa hotel entrance hall.
The NCHA and other departments of the Beijing municipal government spent one year on converting the old Zhengjue Temple, the main place of worship for Qing Dynasty emperors in the garden, into an exhibition venue, said Liu Yuzhu, head of the NCHA.
An exhibition commemorating the return of the horse head kicked off this week at the temple, displaying about 100 items including relics and photographs.
The horse head sculpture was returned to its original palace home amid the challenges brought by COVID-19, said He Yan, an official of the Beijing Urban Planning Society. “It also led to an all-round upgrade of security at the Old Summer Palace, which allows for long-term exhibitions.”
“There is international consensus on returning lost cultural relics to their original homes, and China’s efforts to bring relics home in recent years have enhanced that consensus,” he added.