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The Search for the 12 Missing Chinese Zodiac Antiquities of China

Updated on February 17, 2013

many gold ingots for luck


The 12 Lost Zodiac Antiquities of China

The looting of Chinese artifacts was prevalent during the Second Opium War (1856-1860) with the destruction of a number of Chinese historical buildings. The destruction of historical buildings also included the devastation of the fountain at Haiyantang (the Hall of the Calm Sea) in Yuan Ming Yuan.

This great fountain was originally decorated with a set of 12 bronze zodiac animal statues with stone human bodies. The all out effort is on to find and repatriate all 12 of the original animal statue heads to China.

Although five of the lost zodiac heads have been returned to China, five are still missing and two were auctioned in February 2009, at Christie’s in Paris. Both artifacts in the Paris auction were from the collection of the designer, Yves Saint Laurent. There has been much controversy over the person who bought them and his refusal to pay.

Other Names for the Zodiac Animals

These 12 zodiac animal heads were also known as fountainheads and were part of what is known as the Water Clock. Once every two hours, water would flow from one of these 12 animal heads in turn to tell time. Then at 12 o’ clock, all the animal heads would gush out water at the same time. The zodiac heads, or fountainheads, represent the 12 symbolic animals associated with the 12 year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar. Each animal head was made of a special copper-based alloy which resisted corrosion.

The 12 lunar animals were separated and had not been seen until the nearing of the millennium when three of them were presented to the international art market. It was in 2000 when the tiger, the ox, and the monkey heads were sold at auction by Sotheby’s of Hong Kong. They were purchased by the state owned company known as the China Poly Group for US$ 4.2 million (33 million Hong Kong dollars). This was all due to a serendipitous event; employees of the Poly Art Museum happened to be there to bid on other items. Protesters demanding the return of national treasures to China fortunately disrupted the sale for half an hour giving the museum employees time to inform the China Poly Group who made the prompt decision to bid on the three artifacts.

As other lunar animal heads were to be sold at auction, they too were then purchased, either by the state owned group or by the gambling industry tycoon, Stanley Ho. Stanley Ho has donated his two purchases to the motherland.

Where are the Antiquities to be Found?

These, and other Chinese antiquities, are to be found in 47 countries in both museums and private collections. According to UNESCO, there are more than 1.6 million antiquities that were taken from China. However, Chinese experts estimate that more than 10 million of their cultural relics have been taken out of the country. Efforts have been stepped up to reclaim back relics that have also been exported abroad illegally.

For example, China has reclaimed a 10th century sculptured wall panel that was originally from a Five Dynasties tomb, through the U.S. customs on the grounds that the wall panel was stolen from a State-owned cultural site and was shipped illegally out of China.

The status of the 12 zodiac heads is as follows:

2000 - The ox was purchased at auction by the China Poly Group and is now at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.

2000 - The tiger was purchased at auction by the China Poly Group and is now at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.

2000 - The monkey was purchased at auction by the China Poly Group and is now at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.

2003 - The pig was purchased from a New York collector by Stanley Ho. It was donated to the state and it is currently at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.

2007 - The horse was purchased from a Taiwanese collector by Stanley Ho. It was donated to the state and it is currently in the Capital Museum in Beijing.

2009 - The five zodiac heads that are still missing are the snake, the sheep, the rooster, the dragon, and the dog.

2009 - The rabbit and the rat were both in the collection of Yves Saint Laurent. They were put up for auction in February at Christie’s in Paris. Lot number 677, Sale number 1209, is the rat head, and was said to have sold at auction for US$20,297,268. Lot number 678, Sale 1209, is the rabbit head and it was said to have sold at auction for the same price of US$20,297,268.

This controversial and expensive purchase of the rabbit and the rat was made by a man known as Cai Mingchoa. He described himself as a Chinese antiques collector. However, at that time Cai Mingchoa refused to pay for his purchases.

One of the major complaints is that even though China is buying back these artifacts at auction they are being sold at exorbitant prices. For example, when Stanley Ho purchased the horse statue from Sotheby’s of Hong Kong he paid US$8.84 million (HK$69.1 million). That price was 22 times more that what the owner was said to have paid for it at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1989.

The effort is on by the people of China to have their antiquities returned to them. They are both eager and anxious to have their lost cultural heritage returned and are outraged by the public auctions that continue to thrive on the selling of their relics at outrageous prices. Thanks to the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Fund set up in 2002 in Beijing, the dedication to bringing back all 12 of these lost relics continues throughout the world in great earnest.

The return of ancient relics

When cultural artifacts are looted from a country due to wars should they be returned?

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    • Thomasjames1992 profile image

      Thomas James 2 years ago from London

      Really fancy going to China and loved reading this hub thanks!

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 5 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      It's all heartbreaking!

    • profile image

      Ding Yi 5 years ago

      Nothing in comparison to what was lost during the cultural revolution.

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Hello Erwin - I must say this was just awesome when I read about it in the China Times magazine awhile back. It was filled with photos of the fountain and more.

      You can find more information online and see at least a couple photos - or get a good starting link for more information on the China Digital Times website.

      I just checked and saw a page at:


      About midway down the page you will see two of the heads and there will be a lot of information about the auctions and more.

      Hope this is helpful and I am so glad you wrote.

    • profile image

      Erwin 7 years ago

      Hello BK is there any site i can get comprehensive pictures of these fountain heads i love to know more about them

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Thanks Shelly Bryant! And I will certainly do likewise. Thanks for writing!

    • Shelly Bryant profile image

      Shelly Bryant 7 years ago from Singapore and/or Shanghai

      Great hub BkCreative! I really enjoyed reading it, and will link to it from my China-related blog.

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      I am so glad you enjoyed the hub Wealthmadehealthy. I'm a big fan of the ancient antiquities and so much is held in the West by private owners or museums.

      Thanks for such a nice compliment!

    • Wealthmadehealthy profile image

      Wealthmadehealthy 7 years ago from Somewhere in the Lone Star State

      This was one of the most interesting hubs to read! I love art and it frustrates me that not only do these things disappear from countries they belong in, but when found, they are sold back at exorbident (sp) prices....

      Thank you for writing this hub!!

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Thanks so much John Rogers. Like yourself I am a lover of Chinese artifacts and symbolism. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for writing.

    • profile image

      John Rogers 7 years ago

      Fascinating read. I've been documenting the symbolism used in the Chinese antiques that I collect and I was unaware of the details of this story.

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 7 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      You're welcome Little Princess. Nice to meet you and thanks for commenting!

    • Little Princess profile image

      Little Princess 7 years ago

      I like artifacts antiques paintings and zodiacs. Thanks for writing this. Great info.

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Hi JimmyTH, please let me know if you find out more about the original 18 Lohan postures and I will do likewise. I'm an ancient person and value all the ancient wisdoms.

      Thanks for writing!

    • JimmyTH profile image

      JimmyTH 8 years ago from Indiana

      Very interesting hub, BK, I'd never heard the story of the fountainheads before. One of the things I'm looking for still is information about the original 18 Lohan postures, the stances were supposed to be key practices that unlock 18 heavens. Lots of 18 Lohan systems around today, but they've evolved away from the fundamentals. Probably there's a mural on a temple wall someplace, or maybe it's hanging in somebody's collection now.