“All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits. We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.” So wrote Victor Hugo in his letter to Captain Butler in 1861, in reference to the looting a year earlier of the Chinese emperors’ Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops, during the Second Opium War.
Indeed, the Summer Palace or Yuanmingyuan was filled with treasures of art and architecture, including the celebrated water-clock fountain in the Calm Sea Pavilion. Each in turn and for two hours, bronze heads representing the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac spouted water into a pond. The fountain was made at the behest of Emperor Quianlong, who reigned between 1736 and 1795. Charmed by European baroque, he commissioned the fountain-clock from the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione and Father Michel Benoist. Construction lasted from 1747 to 1759.
Regrettably, these animal heads were among the one million items of artistic, historical and cultural significance that disappeared following the pillaging and destruction of the Summer Palace, a place renowned for its beauty. Most of the looted items were taken out of China; for example, the collections of the Chinese Museum at Château de Fontainebleau in France are partly composed of precious artefacts taken from the palace and presented to Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. Quoted by the french.china.org.cn website, Wang Kaixi, a professor of history at the University of Beijing who is also vice-president of the Association for Summer Palace Studies, declared that while many other stolen pieces were far more valuable than the twelve bronze animal statues, these were, for the Chinese, highly symbolic. All the more so given the widespread media coverage of the Chinese government’s efforts to retrieve them.
Twelve works of art
Needless to say, the presentation by De Bethune of its Imperial Fountain series at this year’s Baselworld couldn’t have been more apt. The day after the World Watch and Jewellery Show opened, on April 26th, the rat and rabbit heads from the fountain were global news as they prepared to join the tiger, pig, monkey, ox and horse heads which had already been returned to China. Recently singled out by Robb Report for its IX Mayan Underworld limited edition, named “Best of the Best” in the Men’s Watches: Visual Artistry category, De Bethune struck again with this limited edition of five sets of 12 timepieces.
Each of the DB25 Imperial Fountain watches is distinguished by a solid gold dial, decorated with hand-engraved representations of the Chinese zodiac symbols, freely inspired by the twelve bronze statues that adorned the famous fountain. The animal in the centre of the dial is engraved using the bas relief technique and set against a background of grand feu enamel, with translucent enamel applied over chased reliefs. The specially developed DB2145 movement leaves the centre of the dial free, with peripheral hour and minute hands circling the animal head.
Jackie Chan to the rescue
And so De Bethune’s homage to imperial China is most opportune. In 2007, the Macao millionaire Stanley Ho purchased the bronze horse head at Sotheby’s for USD 8.8 million and promptly returned it to China. Now the rat and the rabbit have come home. Archives state that they were first acquired by the artist and collector Josep Maria Sert, who was born in Barcelona in 1874. “Both these relics then joined the collection of the Marquis de Pomereu before being sold in 1986 by Galerie J. Kugel to Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. The couple displayed the statues in their apartment on Rue Bonaparte in Paris,” writes french.china.org.cn.
The two heads came into the public eye in 2009 when the Saint Laurent collection was auctioned at Christie’s in Paris, rekindling international tensions over their rightful ownership. A Chinese collector, Cai Mingchao, successfully bid for the sculptures. However, when the time came to settle the EUR 30 million bill he refused to pay, fuelling speculation that he was acting on behalf of the Chinese government. The two sculptures thus reverted to Pierre Bergé before being acquired by the Pinault family, at the head of the Kering group. Note that François Pinault, himself a great art collector, became Christie’s new owner in 1998 for EUR 1.2 billion. Earlier this year his son François-Henri Pinault, who had travelled to China with a business delegation led by the French president François Hollande, had made the solemn promise that the two bronze heads would be repatriated. A promise he kept in June.
The whereabouts of the five remaining heads – snake, dragon, rooster, goat and dog – are still unknown. The Chinese dissident and militant artist Ai Weiwei has proposed his own interpretation of the twelve sculptures. The piece, titled Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, has gone on show worldwide. Meanwhile, the legendary martial artist and actor Jackie Chan has resolved the mystery, on-screen at least, in his latest film, CZ12.