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Friday, 17 August 2018

Invaluable Chinese art dating back to the Ming dynasty is being looted 'on order' from galleries across Europe amid claims Beijing could be to blame

  • Chinese art has been stolen from museums in Sweden, France and UK
  • Art experts claim Chinese billionaires are buying the stolen artefacts
  • Some of what has been stolen was looted from China in the 19th century
  • There have been rumours online that even the Chinese government is involved
Invaluable Chinese art has been stolen from museums all over Europe in a series of heists carried out over several years, and experts say they are ending up in the private collections of Beijing billionaires.
The first heist took place at the Swedish Royal Family's Chinese Pavilion in 2010, and the most recent target is reported to have been the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath in the UK in April this year.
Thieves have stolen artefacts worth millions to collectors and museums - and of 'priceless' cultural significance to China.
Many of the Chinese artworks taken over the years have not been found, and it is believed that they have made it back to their country of origin.
Disappearing art: An enamel piece dating back to the 17th Century was stolen from the Empress' Chinese Museum at the Palace of Fontainebleau in France in 2015
Disappearing art: An enamel piece dating back to the 17th Century was stolen from the Empress' Chinese Museum at the Palace of Fontainebleau in France in 2015
'Buying looted artwork has become high-street fashion among China's elite,' Zhao Xu, the director of Beijing Poly Auction, told China Daily.  
Rumours have been swirling that some of the heists could have been carried out on the orders of nouveau riche Chinese, or even Beijing officials.
However, while experts say some wealthy Chinese would have no qualms about buying stolen art - it is unlikely to be a government plot.
'The Chinese don't need a coordinating campaign,' James Ratcliffe, the director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register, told GQ.
'There are enough Chinese collectors with a huge amount of money who want the pride of acquiring this art.'    
This 18th century box  made of black lacquer with golden landscape and plant motifs was stolen from the Chinese Pavilion of the Swedish Royal Palace Drottningholm in 2010
This 18th century box made of black lacquer with golden landscape and plant motifs was stolen from the Chinese Pavilion of the Swedish Royal Palace Drottningholm in 2010
Taken: A soapstone figure from the 1600s and a Jade monkey holding a peach from 3th-15th century were taken during the raid in Bath in April this year
In April this year, the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath was targeted by four masked men who stole precious jade and gold artefacts
In April this year, the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath was targeted by four masked men who stole precious jade and gold artefacts
The series of raids is believed to have started in Sweden in 2010 with a robbery of the Chinese Pavilion in the grounds of the Royal Palace Drottningholm in Stockholm.
Later that year, burglars made off with 56 items from the China Collection at the KODE Museum in Bergen, Norway. 
In 2012, Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum and Durham's Oriental Museum were targeted by a gang called the Rathkeale Rovers, who were subsequently caught and jailed in 2016. 
The items stolen in Durham and Cambridge were valued at around £17m, but it is thought they might have fetched more than three times that figure on the Chinese auction market.
Police said at the time that the plots to raid British museums of Chinese artefacts dwarfed the Hatton Garden heist.
Also jailed alongside the Rathkeale Rovers as a man named Donald Chi Chong Wong, who was accused of being the middle man, travelling back and forth between Britain and Hong Kong.
In 2015, the Empress' Chinese Museum at the Palace of Fontainebleau southeast of Paris in was raided and thieves stole 15 'priceless' East Asian artefacts.
Valuable works of art: Some of the 18 jade pieces stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2012 - items thought to have been destined for the Chinese black market
Valuable works of art: Some of the 18 jade pieces stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2012 - items thought to have been destined for the Chinese black market
Targeted: The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge had millions worth of Chinese art stolen during a heist carried out by the Rathkeale Rovers in 2012
Targeted: The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge had millions worth of Chinese art stolen during a heist carried out by the Rathkeale Rovers in 2012
In April this year, the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath was targeted by four masked men who stole precious jade and gold artefacts, including some dating back to the early Ming dynasty in the 13th to 15th century.
'Due to the items stolen and the speed of the burglary, we suspect this to be a targeted attack, with the artefacts possibly stolen to order,' police said in a statement after the robbery.
Detective Sergeant Matthew Reed added that while the value of the items varies the 'cultural significance' was priceless.
Much of the treasures stolen have been artefacts looted by British and French troops during the Opium Wars, particularly during the destruction of the  Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860.
In the second war the French Empire joined the British Empire to go up against the Qing Dynasty of China to combat trade agreements.
An 18th century Chinese jade bowl with a Chinese poem inscribed on it, one of two items stolen from Durham University's Oriental Museum in April 2012 and recovered by police
An 18th century Chinese jade bowl with a Chinese poem inscribed on it, one of two items stolen from Durham University's Oriental Museum in April 2012 and recovered by police
Another target: The Durham's Oriental Museum was raided in 2012
Another target: The Durham's Oriental Museum was raided in 2012
In the final days of the second war, French soldiers headed to the Old Summer Palace in Peking, which was being occupied by eunuchs.
Both French and British soldiers looted the palace before the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, ordered its destruction.
The palace was destroyed to discourage the Chinese Empire from kidnapping British units and 3,500 British troops set the palace on fire – which took three days to burn down.  
When items known to have been taken from the Summer Palace during the loot have come up for auction in recent years, Chinese buyers have been quick to snap them up. 
For many Chinese, it is simply a case of bringing what rightfully belongs to them back home. 

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