Chinese Billionaires Are Hiring Trained Thieves To Steal Back Art From European Museums

The Great Chinese Art Heist

 

Strange how it keeps happening, how the greatest works of Chinese art keep getting brazenly stolen from museums around the world. Is it a conspiracy? Vengeance for treasures plundered years ago? We sent Alex W. Palmer to investigate the trail of theft and the stunning rumor: Is the Chinese government behind one of the boldest art-crime waves in history?

The Great Chinese Art Heist

The patterns of the heists were evident only later, but their audacity was clear from the start. The spree began in Stockholm in 2010, with cars burning in the streets on a foggy summer evening. The fires had been lit as a distraction, a ploy to lure the attention of the police. As the vehicles blazed, a band of thieves raced toward the Swedish royal residence and smashed their way into the Chinese Pavilion on the grounds of Drottningholm Palace. There they grabbed what they wanted from the permanent state collection of art and antiquities. Police told the press the thieves had fled by moped to a nearby lake, ditched their bikes into the water, and escaped by speedboat. The heist took less than six minutes.

A month later, in Bergen, Norway, intruders descended from a glass ceiling and plucked 56 objects from the China Collection at the KODE Museum. Next, robbers in England hit the Oriental Museum at Durham University, followed by a museum at Cambridge University. Then, in 2013, the KODE was visited once more; crooks snatched 22 additional relics that had been missed during the first break-in.

Had they known exactly what was happening, perhaps the security officials at the Château de Fontainebleau, the sprawling former royal estate just outside Paris, could have predicted that they might be next.

With more than 1,500 rooms, the palace is a maze of opulence. But when bandits arrived before dawn on March 1, 2015, their target was unmistakable: the palace’s grand Chinese Museum. Created by the last empress of France, the wife of Napoleon III, the gallery was stocked with works so rare that their value was considered incalculable.

In recent years, however, the provenance of those treasures had become an increasingly sensitive subject: The bulk of the museum’s collection had been pilfered from China by French soldiers in 1860 during the sack of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace.

In the low light before daybreak, the robbers raced to the southwest wing and shattered a window. They climbed inside, stepping over broken glass, and swiftly went to work dismantling the empress’s trove. Within seven minutes, they were gone, along with 22 of the museum’s most valuable items: porcelain vases; a mandala made of coral, gold, and turquoise; a Chimera in cloisonné enamel; and more.

The police arrived quickly, but there was little to be done. Before vanishing, the criminals had emptied a fire extinguisher, spraying its snowy foam perhaps in the hopes that it would erase their fingerprints, hide their footprints, and remove any lingering clue as to who they were. “The thieves knew what they were doing and exactly what they wanted,” the museum’s president, Jean-François Hebert, told the press. They were “probably very professional.” The theft, he added, was a “terrible shock.” But maybe it shouldn’t have been.

In the years since the Fontainebleau heist, the robberies have continued throughout Europe—sometimes in daring, cinematic fashion. The full scale of the criminality is impossible to pinpoint, because many heists never make the headlines. Security officials and museum boards are sometimes reluctant to publicize their own failures, both to avoid embarrassment and to save on the cost of security upgrades.

But the thefts that were made public bear striking similarities. The criminals are careful and professional. They often seem to be working from a shopping list—and appear content to leave behind high-value objects that aren’t on it.

In each case, the robbers focused their efforts on art and antiquities from China, especially items that had been looted by foreign armies. Many of these objects are well documented and publicly known, making them very hard to sell and difficult to display. In most cases the pieces have not been recovered; they seem to simply vanish.

After that first robbery, in Stockholm, a police official told the press that “all experience says this is an ordered job.” As the heists mounted, so did the suspicion that they were being carried out on instructions from abroad. But if that was true, an obvious question loomed: Who was doing the ordering?

Security guards stand beside an item at a Sotheby's auction
Security guards stand beside a vase after being sold for $14.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong

For much of the 20th century, China’s leaders hardly seemed to care about the country’s lost and plundered antiquities. Art was a symbol of bourgeois decadence, fit for destruction rather than preservation. By the early 2000s, however, China was growing rich and confident, and decidedly less Communist. The fate of the country’s plundered art was seized upon as a focus of national concern and pride.

Suddenly a new cadre of plutocrats—members of the country’s growing club of billionaires—began purchasing artifacts at a dizzying pace. For this new breed of mega-rich collector, buying up Chinese art represented a chance to flash not just incredible wealth but also exorbitant patriotism.

But less conspicuous campaigns to lure art back to China were initiated, too. One of the country’s most powerful corporate conglomerates, the state-run China Poly Group, launched a shadowy program aimed at locating and recovering lost art. Poly—an industrial giant that sells everything from gemstones to missiles—was run by a Communist Party titan who staffed the project with officials connected to Chinese military intelligence.

The government, meanwhile, was sanctioning its own efforts via a web of overlapping state agencies and Communist Party–affiliated NGOs. In 2009, a year before the Stockholm heist, the efforts got more serious. Beijing announced that it planned to dispatch a “treasure hunting team” to various institutions across the U.S. and Europe. Museums were left clueless about the purpose of the mission. Were the Chinese coming to assess collections, to conduct research, or to reclaim objects on the spot? More importantly, who, exactly, were the visitors gathering information for?

When an eight-person team arrived at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, it was led by an archaeologist and largely composed of employees from Chinese state media and Beijing’s palace museum. As the group poked around and asked about the art on display, one participant, a researcher named Liu Yang who had gained some notoriety for his zeal in cataloging China’s lost treasures, sleuthed through the museum’s long corridors, looking for objects he might recognize. The visit ended without incident, but the shift in tactics was evident: China was no longer content to sit back passively and hope for the return of its art. The hunt was on.

Those looking for China’s lost art have plenty of targets. According to one widely cited government estimate, more than 10 million antiquities have disappeared from China since 1840. The works that mean the most to the Chinese are the ones that left during the so-called Century of Humiliation, from 1840 to 1949, when China was repeatedly carved up by foreign powers. The modern Communist Party has declared its intent to bring China back from that period of prolonged decline, and the return of looted objects serves as undeniable proof—tangible, visible, and beautiful proof—of the country’s revival.

By far the most important pieces are those that were hauled away by British and French troops in 1860 after the sacking of the Old Summer Palace. In China today, it’s difficult to overstate the indignity still associated with the looting of the palace, which had served as a residence to the last Chinese dynasty. Its gardens, art, and architecture were said to be among the most beautiful in the world. The palace held an array of wonders, not the least of which was a fountain adorned with 12 bronze heads representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

When European troops reached the garden, the desecration of the palace became a mad frenzy. Soldiers stripped it of everything they could carry. The zodiac heads were wrenched from their bases and hauled away as trophies. When the soldiers had removed all they could, they torched what remained—retribution, they said, for the torture and murder of British envoys who’d attempted to negotiate with the Chinese. The grounds of the palace were so large and so intricate that the 4,500 troops needed three days to burn everything.

Most of the plunder was taken back to Europe and either tucked away in private collections or presented as gifts to royal families. Queen Victoria of Britain was given a pet Pekingese dog, the first of its kind ever seen in Europe. Unabashed by its provenance, she named it Looty.

In China, the memory of the Old Summer Palace’s destruction remains vivid—and intentionally so. The site has been kept as ruins, the better to “stir feelings of national humiliation and patriotism,” as one Chinese academic put it. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before those feelings transformed into action.

The Meiyintang Chenghua 'Chicken Cup' is displayed by deputy chairman for Sotheby's AsiaThis porcelain “chicken cup” sold for $36 million in 2014

Of course, not all of the art that’s finding its way home to China is being snatched off museum walls in the dead of night or wrangled back by aggressive bureaucrats. The country’s new elite are helping, too.

“The Chinese don’t need a coordinating campaign,” says James Ratcliffe, the director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register. “There are enough Chinese collectors with a huge amount of money who want the pride of acquiring this art.”

In 2016, for the first time, China had more billionaires than the United States. Many of the country’s nouveau riche have taken to art collecting with a giddy enthusiasm. In 2000, China represented 1 percent of the global-art-auction market; by 2014, it accounted for 27 percent. The market for historical Chinese art is so frenzied that even seemingly mundane pieces of Chinese art can electrify the scene at auction houses.

In 2010, a 16-inch Chinese vase went up for sale at an auction house in an unremarkable suburb of London. The starting price was $800,000. Half an hour later, the final bid—reportedly from an anonymous buyer from mainland China—was $69.5 million. Though the provenance of this vase was mysterious, similar objects with traceable histories of looting have proved valuable. “Buying looted artwork has become high-street fashion among China’s elite,” Zhao Xu, the director of Beijing Poly Auction, told China Daily.

Their desires adhere to a nationalistic logic: The closer an object’s connection to China’s ignominious defeats, the more significant its return. In recent years, vases, bronzeware, and a host of other items from the Old Summer Palace have all sold for millions. Behind these purchases is almost always a well-connected Chinese billionaire eager to demonstrate China’s modern resurgence on the world stage.

In 2014, a taxi driver turned billionaire named Liu Yiqian paid $36 million for a small porcelain “chicken cup,” coveted because it was once a part of the imperial collection. (According to the Wall Street Journal, he completed his purchase by swiping his Amex card 24 times and promptly stoked controversy by drinking from the dish.) A few months later, he paid an additional $45 million for a Tibetan silk tapestry from the Ming era. “When we are young, we are indoctrinated to believe that the foreigners stole from us,” Liu once told The New Yorker. “But maybe it’s out of context. Whatever of ours [the foreigners] stole, we can always snatch it back one day.” (Liu Yiqian did not respond to requests for comment.)

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