An absolute symbol of the spoils of war, the Old Summer Palace, a vast complex of palaces, rivers and lakes, filled with treasures, a few miles from Beijing, became the prime target of French and British forces at the culmination of the second Opium War, in October 1860. How it came to pass was the result of years of failed negotiations between the West and China - who had a real lack of experience in terms of treaties and how to keep them. Misunderstandings and plain stubbornness on the Chinese side meant the conflict escalated way beyond what had been necessary to resolve the issues at hand. Nor were there funds on the Chinese side to expand their naval defence, therefore they were ill equipped against the strength of the French and the British when they arrived with ten warships each and 10,000 men.

1_a Emperor Xianfeng, (1831-1861) Palace Museum, Beijing, image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The kidnap and brutal torture of British and Indian subjects, led to the British retaliation through Lord Elgin, (son of the impoverished 7th Earl of Elgin, who brought back the Elgin marbles), who wanted to hurt the Chinese in their very heart and core of their culture. He did so by entering into the Old Summer Palace once Emperor Xianfeng had fled to the mountains. First through were the French, reported to be dressing up, drinking and going wild amongst the unimaginable treasures of the Palaces. They looted without thought and initially impressed by precious metals and stones, smashed the porcelains in raucous games. One can only imagine the treasures that were destroyed on the days that followed. When the British arrived, looting ensued, but their approach was more organised and one quickly realised that the soldiers could sell and realise some of the value of their loot through auction. Still the majority was destroyed in the days that followed, priceless scrolls were used to stoke the fire and furniture thrown in as kindling. By October 18th the entire palace had been burnt to the ground.

2_a Lord Elgin, British High Commissioner, image courtesy of Wikipedia

When the news reached Europe, people were divided. They thought it right that the troops had punished the Chinese by destroying the finest palace to be found in the Far East, however the idea of lost treasure made many feel outraged. Among others was Victor Hugo, who wrote in September 1861 to Captain Francis William Butler-

'Artists, poets and philosophers knew the Summer Palace; Voltaire talks of it. People spoke of the Parthenon in Greece, the pyramids in Egypt, the Coliseum in Rome, Notre-Dame in Paris, the Summer Palace in the Orient. If people did not see it they imagined it. It was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.

This wonder has disappeared.

One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems.'

3_a Looting of the Old Summer Palace, Godefroy Durand, December 1860, image courtesy of Wikipedia

Now and again suspected looted items come up at auction resulting in bidding frenzies, unpaid lots and political intervention. The most recent high profile case were the two zodiac animal heads reputedly wrenched from a fountain designed by Giuseppe Castiglione for the Qianlong emperor, sold at Christie's Paris from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent in 2009.

4_a Print of the fountain with the zodiac heads at the 'Western Style Mansions at the Old Summer Palace, before the looting. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bought by a Chinese buyer but not paid for, as a patriotic act, they were eventually bought by the Pinault family and donated to China in a high profile case. They were presented to the Chinese government in 2013 and will in due course be on view at the National Museum in Beijing. There are five zodiac heads still missing, with no clue to their whereabouts.

5_a Francois Pinault, Francois-Henri Pinault and his wife Salma Hayek together with China Vice Premier Liu Yandong at the ceremony. Image courtesy of CBC News.

A lower profile example of looting, came up for sale at London-based auctioneer Charles Miller Ltd. in October 2012. A curious combination of a banner and a Ming cloisonné handle accompanied by a letter stating that these were indeed taken from the Old Summer Palace by Dr C. A. Duckett. They sold for £4320 in Millers' sale, auctioneer of Maritime and Scientific objects. Much less controversial than the heads, they summarise the urgency with which the troops acted.

To quote Charles Gordon, a contemporary officer, ' It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army...'

A cloisonné handle and a small banner, small but significant examples of that pivotal date in history.

6_1 Personal silk banner of a visiting official, together with a Ming cloisonné handle. Image courtesy of Charles Miller Ltd.