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This bronze horse head was looted from the summer palace in Beijing in 1860. Macau casino magnate Stanley Ho will donate it to China. ((Vincent Yu/Associated Press))

Casino magnate Stanley Ho has paid $8.9 million Cdn for a bronze horse head from China's imperial palace and says he will return it to China.

"With this move, I hope to encourage more people to take part in preserving Chinese artifacts and to promote patriotism and nationalism," Ho said in the statement from auction house Sotheby's.

Sotheby's released the statement Friday, saying it has cancelled a controversial auction of the bronze head scheduled for Oct. 9.

In the past, there have been protests outside Hong Kong auctions featuring items from the palace, with protesters saying they were looted.

The horse head is one of 12 animal heads that formed part of an elaborate water clock fountain designed by Jesuit missionaries for the summer palace in Beijing. Each animal is taken from the Chinese zodiac.

In the second Opium War of 1860, British and French troops set the palace ablaze and plundered its treasures.

In 2003, Ho, the man who built a gambling empire in Macau, bought a boar head from the same clock and donated it to Beijing's Poly Museum, an arm of the People's Liberation Army.

After the palace was looted, the horse head was taken back to France and went into private collection, only resurfacing in 1989 in London.

An unidentified Taiwanese collector paid $400,000 for the bronze relic in the 1989 London auction.

Ho negotiated a private deal with the Taiwanese owner, paying the highest price ever given for a Qing Dynasty sculpture.

Sotheby's said Ho planned to display the horse head in Hong Kong at a preview for other items in its sale of Chinese artifacts.

It will then be displayed in his Grand Lisboa casino in Macau. Ho has not yet decided what Chinese museum will receive the artifact.

Government welcomes purchase

The Chinese government welcomed Ho's announcement.

Earlier this month, Xu Yongxiang, a buyer forthe Shanghai Museum, said the horse head was "stolen property" and should be returned to the Chinese government.

Of the 12 animal heads from the fountain, only seven have been located.

The Chinese government spent more than $4 million to buy back the tiger, ox and monkey heads at auctions. They are in the Poly Museum with the boar head.

The rabbit and rat are part of a private European collection.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese smashed most of the cultural artifacts from their rich history.

With files from the Associated Press