Eighteen rare Chinese artifacts, mostly made of jade, were stolen this week in a heist from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. The most valuable of these was a 14th century Ming period cup made of jade. Wisely the museum did not comment on the value of the stolen objects–that would only serve to attach a price tag that the thieves could use as a point of departure to determine the value of their haul.
Without a price bandied about in the press, it is much harder for art thieves, who rarely know anything about art, to determine the value of what they stole. But jade is very valuable indeed, and there is a market for stolen jade in China, where the provenance will be less of an issue for potential buyers. China is a leading destination country for just about any stolen good, with a lively trade in exotic animals and their by-products (tiger skins and even skeletons, rhino horns, etc). Even stolen artworks that are registered with databases may not be accessible from Chinese IP addresses, so even well-meaning potential buyers who wish to follow due diligence and check the origins of potential purchases may not be able to do so.
The theft took place around 730pm last Friday, when a group of thieves (almost certainly members of an organized crime group) broke into the museum. The police went public with news of the theft only this week, appealing to the public to keep an eye out for the goods. But since the goods are small and portable, and almost certainly destined for sale abroad (most likely China), it may be an appeal in vain. A few weeks ago, police recovered two Chinese artifacts that had gone missing from the Oriental Art Museum in Durham, England. It is highly likely that the thefts were connected. There have been no shortage of thefts of Chinese artifacts, with jade being particularly popular, with a seemingly endless market for quality jade goods. That market is largely an Asian one, with far fewer jade collectors in Europe and North America.
As a Cambridge graduate myself, here’s hoping that the wonderful Fitzwilliam recovers its treasures. I remember not long ago when an old man slipped on a Fitzwilliam staircase and knocked over a valuable Chinese vase. Watching footage of the slip, it looked to many like he slipped intentionally and reached out to grab the vase–perhaps an act of vandalism, or perhaps just a very awkward fall. Best wishes to the “Fitz” and its Chinese collections.