The Secret History of Art
Noah Charney on Art Crimes and Art Historical Mysteries

The Secret History of Art – Noah Charney on Art Crimes and Art Historical Mysteries

Chinese Art Heist Shocks Norway

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On Saturday, 5 January, 23 rare Chinese artifacts and artworks were stolen in a daring heist at the Bergens Industrial Arts Museum in Norway.  Once home to one of Europe’s largest collections of Chinese art, the private collection of a Norwegian general who fought with the Chinese Imperial Army, the theft has shocked Norway, and is strangely reminiscent of a pair of heists of Chinese art in Cambridge and Durham, England last year, as well as another theft, of 53 Chinese artifacts, from the same museum two years ago—suggesting that the same criminal group may be involved.  The entire theft took just 90 seconds, and can be viewed here.

The Secret History of Art was interviewed for a Norwegian national newspaper, and the Q&A is reproduced here.

** Since the raids in Bergen are so similar to those in the UK, do you believe that the stolen artifacts are headed to China right now? If so, why?

I would guess that the artifacts are en route to China.  There is a specific niche market for Chinese artifacts, unlike other periods and styles, like Impressionist painting or Old Masters, which have broad general appeal.  Western collectors of Chinese art are a small, passionate group, but the greatest value for Chinese art is among the nouveau riche in China.  China is also an unusual case study.  Chinese laws on everything from theft to Intellectual Properties are very different from those in the West, and therefore stolen or forged artworks find a market far more easily there than abroad.  A certain type of Chinese collector would be far less shy about purchasing a knowingly stolen artwork than a Western collector would.  Chinese collectors could purchase stolen Chinese art and still have the pride of display, perhaps with the rationale that, whether or not the object was stolen, it should be in China, and therefore the collector was somehow aiding its liberation.  This rationale does not function among Western collectors, but sometimes can in China.

** Do you know of any other raids against Chinese arts collections like this, except from the two in the UK last year? Is this a trend?

The ones I wrote about in the UK last year are the most prominent, but there are many each year–they tend to fall below the radar of the international media, many go unreported or improperly filed, so they do not reach the Interpol reports.  Those are the highest-profile, but Chinese art is also stolen fairly regularly from private collections.  We tend to hear about big museum heists because they capture the popular imagination.  There is a trend in fake art being produced in China for sale abroad, of fake European rare wine being sold to Chinese nouveau riche as a status symbol in China, and of Chinese art being stolen, almost certainly for a Chinese market.  I should stress that these thefts are almost certainly not “on commission” from a collector, but are likely organized by an organized crime group with connections in China and a waiting market for any Chinese artifacts, not just the specific ones stolen here.

** What kinds of groups organize heists like this? From where in the world are these raids organized?

All manner of organized crime groups are involved in art crime, from larger international mafias (Cosa Nostra, Unione Corse, etc) to small local gangs.  The international aspect is key, because goods must be moved from the site of the theft to a country in which the goods can either be sold, or used in barter or collateral deals with other organized crime groups (for more details on these basic questions, for the sake of time and not to repeat myself, Id direct you to my ArtInfo column, The Secret History of Art, which details all of this).
** How easy is it to trade stolen items in China compared to the Western World?

It is far easier in China because of more easily-navigable rules and law, and because “liberating” Chinese art from Western collections may be seen as a positive thing, whereas it is shameful for Western collectors to own stolen or looted art.

** I can imagine that a great deal of Chinese would deem it fair and just that historical Chinese Arts and Artifacts are braught back from the West. Is this the case, and can this function as a legitimization for trading with stolen artifacts?

I think this is the overt, explicit rationalization for such acts, though Im not sure any official would go on the record stating as much.  I imagine that this is what buyers of stolen, or possibly stolen, artifacts would say to their peers.
** How likely is it that Norwegian Police will be able to arrest the persons/groups behind this heist?

Tens of thousands of artworks are reported stolen each year, and the best recovery rates for stolen art are around 6-10% (Italy).  Most countries recover 2-6% of what is reported stolen, with as little as 1.5% rate for recovery plus successful prosecution.  Most stolen art is recovered when police pay criminal informants for information, and then stage sting operations to try to trick thieves into selling them stolen art.  So the percentages are not in favor of a recovery, especially if the objects are already abroad.  But the Norwegian Police are very good.  The best hope is that the criminals make a mistake, or do not have a specific plan in mind as to how to profit from the art.  Fingers crossed.

** Do you have any notion of what routes organized crime groups use to transport stolen Chinese artifacts from Europe to China?

For smuggling small, non-metal objects, normal transport is feasible.  Antiquities are often smuggled with fake provenance suggesting that they are modern souvenirs of no value.  For smaller objects, there are too many smuggling options to name.  Hiding a few small objects among a cargo shipment of a vast quantity of uninteresting objects (a few antiquities at the back of a truck filled with milk or chickens or sneakers for example) is simple and requires great luck to detect.

** Do you know anything of where in China such artifacts might be traded, i.e. certain black markets in Beijing or Shanghai?

Once the object reaches China, black markets in the western sense are not necessarily required.  More likely such objects are offered among acquaintances in a casual manner, not in an underground auction or anything more formal.  Provided the market is only within China, there is little fear of international surveillance.

** You say that thefts like this are not pre-ordered by the buyer, but that the groups behind the heists transport the good to a waiting market. Does this mean that the orchestrators of the raids have a basic understanding of arts and what kinds of artifacts that might be valuable?

I think the orchestrators of the heist have a sense that Chinese antiquities have value–it may end there, though they may do a small amount of research (knowing which period is popular, for instance).  Most knowledge of art and art crime comes to criminals via the media, fiction, and film–the same sources that “teach” the general public, which is to say that often misinform the general public.

** Are there reason to believe that groups behind raids like these originate in China, or are they most likely to be European/Western?

We can’t know yet, based on the information publicly available.  I’d guess there is a collaboration between a Western organized crime group and a market middle-man in China, but that’s based on theory rather than fact in this case.

Noah Charney is a professor of art history specializing in art crime.  He teaches the history of art crime on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

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