Friday, August 17, 2018

"Is the Chinese government behind one of the boldest art-crime waves in history?"

GQ:

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.

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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.

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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.

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Liu is mild-mannered and scrupulously polite. For 20 years he's been a player in China's battle to get its art back, but even today he feels his work is just beginning. He showed me a book he'd published, a comprehensive inventory of the palace's lost treasures. The pages were filled with sticky notes and handwritten notations, and as he flipped through, he pointed out photos of items held by some of the world's best-known museums.

Of course, he'd been to many of them, sometimes under odd circumstances. “My most troublesome experience was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York,” Liu said. “Everyone was very nervous. They called a Chinese lawyer and gave me the phone so she could tell me that the museum had no items from the Old Summer Palace and that all their items were held via legal means.” (A spokesman for the Met denied that any such call took place.)