The Secret History of Art just appeared on BBC Radio to discuss the recent heist of 18 Chinese artifacts, mostly made of jade, including a 14th century Ming vase and a 16th century jade carved buffalo, that were stolen around 730pm on 13 April 2012. Police are still investigating with a team of around 25 in what has been dubbed “Operation Tundra.”
On the show, I noted that the romantic concept of art thieves harks back to Victorian era thefts which fit the cliches–non-violent, clever criminals with gentlemanly aspirations stealing art from the wealthy (Adam Worth, Vincenzo Peruggia, and the like), which inspired both the media and fiction authors (Raffles, Arsene Lupin are characters in this vein)–this is what colors the popular idea of art thieves, which has not caught up with the reality that art theft, since World War 2, has been largely the realm of organized crime groups, as this Fitzwilliam Museum theft certainly was.
The thieves entered from the back of the museum in Cambridge, and there seems to have been a group of four of them. The theft is probably linked to the theft some weeks back of Chinese art from a museum in Durham, England.
The museum was silent about the value of the pieces stolen, but other sources have touted 18 million pounds–a bad idea (though it makes a good story, which is why the media can’t resist). Criminals almost never have any idea of the value of stolen art, and wait for the media to tell them by publishing the value. Now the criminals believe that they have 18 million pounds worth of loot (if the media collectively refused to estimate value, the criminals would be in a tough place, possessing objects that they assume are valuable but with no concept as to the price tag).
This theft, and others of Chinese artifacts in particular, is almost certainly not for one collector (that almost never happens in real life), but rather a harvest of salable goods to be sent to China, where the objects might already be. They will be smuggled there and sold, for in China the general rules about not purchasing art without performing Due Diligence and checking stolen art databases do not apply. Provenance is far less of an issue, sometimes for cultural reasons, but also for practical ones–Internet black-outs mean that many in China could not check stolen art databases, even if they were inclined to do so.
The market for Chinese art is so much greater in China than elsewhere (where the market is very much a small niche, compared to European art in the West), and selling stolen art is so much more difficult in the West, that China is really the only logical destination. 80% of all fake luxury goods come from China (from wine to Gucci handbags), which is also the destination for many illicit objects, from Chinese art to exotic animals (56 rhino horns were stolen around the world in 2011 alone, almost all destined for sale in China).
Asian art galleries around the UK should tighten their security, as this is certainly part of a trend.
Noah Charney is a professor and best-selling author, specializing in art crime. He teaches on the ARCA Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection every summer in Italy. For more information email education (at) artcrimeresearch.org
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