The animal heads were stolen during the looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace 圆明园 (see last post) by removing it from its stone bodies and sent out of China. To date only 5 of the 12 heads are back in China. The Poly Museum managed to secure the tiger, monkey and ox heads in 2000. Macau gambling magnate Stanley Ho purchased the pig head in 2003 and the horse head in 2007 for USD8.9 millions. He donated both of these back to China. The rabbit and rat heads were auctioned by Christie in 2009 despite China’s attempt to block it. A Chinese collector Cai Mingchao who won the bid USD40 millions refused to pay to pay for it out of protests.
China signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Then, why are these not returned to China? These are the words of Jean Couteau – “ Because the Hague Conventions, this “civilizing” of war, were never meant to be retroactive. Since it was implemented, in 1910, it may indeed have compelled, upon Germany and Russia in particular, the restitution of artworks seized during the Second World War, but it does not compel any restitution of the works seized during Western colonial expansion. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Hague Conventions and other similar later ones, viewed by the West as progress toward a true international law and genuine “universalism”, are perceived by the Chinese and other formerly colonized people as yet another one-sided imperialistic diktat. “
The bronze animal heads have come to represent the returning of stolen national treasures to China and in a larger perspective its relationship with the world. Will the so-called civilized nations adopt one standard for themselves and another for the rest of the world?.