Cancan Chu/Getty Images

ArtPolitics

The Chinese hired thieves to take back looted art from European museums

August 24, 2018

In a turn of events straight out of a Hollywood movie, revered Chinese artifacts are being ‘stolen’ from Museums all over Europe and it is believed that the Chinese government is involved. The Swedish Royal Residence and the KODE Museum in Bergen Norway (which was robbed twice) are just two places that have had Chinese relics stolen from their collections by professional thieves that manage to be in and out with priceless and historically significant Chinese heirlooms in mere minutes. Minutes!

Château de Fontainebleau in France was also targeted because according to GQ, “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.” The Chateau was relieved of 22 of its most valuable items within seven minutes, establishing what would turn into a pattern of Chinese artifacts disappearing across Europe. The full scale of the heists taking place is difficult to quantify because “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.”

“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.” – GQ

The robberies coincide with an emerging Chinese trend of the country’s growing billionaire elite buying up valuable Chinese artifacts in order to return them to China in a bid to flash their wealth but also show patriotism. It makes sense, especially considering hoe out of pocket the West has been about the immeasurable amount of art looted from the East and Africa, that has not been returned. British and French museums are the biggest culprits in this regard, owing to antics like the UK wanting to loan Ethiopia its own relics that were stolen by British troops that looted the country for 150 years. The caucasity!

In the case of the Chinese, GQ mentions that “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.” China’s growing economic power (now having more billionaires than the US) has allowed it to buy back a lot of those artefacts for eye-watering amounts ($69 million for a cup?) but it seems that other methods are being used and the Chinese don’t see anything wrong with this because of the manner in which the artefacts were taken from China. The most valuable artifacts come from China’s so-called Century of Humiliation, from 1840 to 1949, when China was carved up by foreign powers. British and French troops ransacked Old Summer Place in 1860, taking what they could carry then burning down the estate when they were done. Because colonizers.

The theft of these Chinese artifacts has Western museum nervous (understandably) but it does open up a discussion of how long these museums plan to profit off of stolen goods acquired through the pillaging that defined colonization. No one is condoning crime but Africa is still waiting for its reparations and the British are having none of that. So it’s not surprising that a country with growing international influence and buying power would take matters into its own hands to restore its heritage. It’s a tricky conversation but in the meantime, we stan. Can’t wait for the movie adaptation!

Related