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Speculation after the sale was that the 18in (45cm) high sculpture – consigned by the family of a 19th century French diplomat – was one of the five missing heads from the famous zodiac fountain in the Haiyantang area of the Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace in Beijing).

The buyer has not been disclosed but Alice Jossaume, expert in charge of the sale at Tessier & Sarrou et Associés, told ATG it had sold in the room to one of three serious competitors. The price with 25% buyer’s premium was €3m (£2.2m).

Cultural heritage

The fountain heads, designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) for the Qianlong emperor, have assumed a special, and highly sensitive, place in China’s cultural heritage.

Although they amount to just 12 of the estimated million-plus items that were removed after French and British forces sacked the Yuanmingyuan in the final act of the Second Opium War (October 1860), they have become totemic of China’s century of humiliation at the hands of imperial Western powers.

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The largest of the Western-style palaces in Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan complex was the Haiyantang. The 12 animals of the clock fountain spouted water in turn every two hours, with all spouting water in concert at noon. The dragon's head is circled in the image.

The appearance of two of the bronzes, a rat and a rabbit, as part of the vast Yves Saint Laurent collection in Paris in 2009 caused great upset.

Soon after their €28m (£25.4m) ‘sale’ – that the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) said had “hurt the cultural rights and interests of the Chinese people” – the successful bidder called a news conference to announce that, as a patriotic act of protest, he had no intention of paying for them.

The bronzes were later sold to the Pinault family, owners of Christie’s, who gifted them to SACH in 2013, shortly before the auctioneer was granted permission to hold sales in China.

Five other fountain heads (the tiger, boar, monkey, ox and horse) have been repatriated as a result of other private and governmental endeavours.

The others – the dragon, snake, goat, rooster and dog – remained unaccounted for.

While the form of the fountain, with its waterworks by the French Jesuit scientist Michel Benoist (1715-74), is known from a drawing, the exact designs of Castiglione’s missing heads has been a matter of conjecture.

When in 2010 the artist Ai Weiwei recreated the 12 bronzes as a commentary on China’s scarred historical memory (Circle of Animals), the forms of the missing heads were imagined.

Two-horned beast

The dragon head offered for sale last week by Tessier & Sarrou et Associés with a €20,000-30,000 estimate and a 19th century attribution was a two-horned beast with large ears and open mouth. Jossaume said she was aware of the speculation around the piece but believed it to be from the later Qing period.

Provenance fuelled the bidding. It came from descendants of Comte Marie-Joseph- Claude-Edouard-Robert de Semallé (1849-1936), secretary of the embassy in Beijing from 1880-84. At the time the city was still visibly blighted by the events of 1860.

The first lot of the auction sold at €30,000 (£27,300) was an album of the famous prints of the palace ruins taken by the German customs official-turned photographer Ernst Ohlmer around 1872.

Many annotated in the Comte de Semallé’s hand, these 14 photos are among the earliest visual records of the remains.