Tycoon to hand $8.9 mln horse head back to China

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho paid a record US$8.9 million for a rare bronze horse’s head plundered from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace and is to hand it back to China, Sotheby’s auction house said on Thursday.

A rare and magnificent bronze horse head is displayed at a Sotheby's auction preview in Hong Kong in this September 5, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The sculpture was one of 12 bronze heads of zodiac animals which graced a water-clock fountain in the palace, Yuanmingyuan, which was destroyed by marauding British and French troops in 1860.

Ho, who bought the finely wrought bronze for HK$69.1 million from a Taiwanese collector in a sale brokered by Sotheby’s, said he would donate it to China.

“I feel honoured to play a role in helping save lost (Chinese) cultural relics from overseas,” said Ho, 85, in a statement from Sotheby’s.

The auction house, which had planned to auction the sculpture in October, said the price was a world record for any Chinese Qing Dynasty sculpture.

China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage said in the statement it was “very happy” to see this treasure returned to the state after being away from Beijing for nearly 150 years.

Experts at Sotheby’s earlier conceded the sale of this looted treasure might stir up indignation and nationalist feelings in China, given its latent symbolism of the subjugation of China’s imperial rulers by Western powers.

The sale of several other bronze animal heads from Yuanmingyuan in 2000 were eventually bought by Chinese collectors and returned home after a public outcry.

Currently, the whereabouts of only seven heads are known including four -- the tiger, monkey, ox and boar -- which are on display at a museum in Beijing. The rat and rabbit remain in a private European collection.

Ho, an avid Chinese art collector, pioneered Western-style casinos in Macau after winning a monopoly concession in the 1960s. Ho ranked number 104 on Forbes’ list of billionaires this year, sitting on a pile of chips worth some US$7 billion.