Fontainebleau theft: net spreads internationally in search for Chinese art treasures

exclusive sloping to top from Paul Harris The net is spreading ever wider in the search for the criminals responsible for the March 1 raid on The Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau Castle. Initially, the theft of 15 ‘priceless’ items (estimated by chineseart.co.uk at a minimum of £50m. or euro $65m.) was being handled exclusively by L’Office Central de Lutte contre le Trafic de Biens Culturels (OCBC).  The OCBC started operations in 2009 charged with countering art theft in France under the jurisdiction of The Ministry of the Interior. It also works closely with INTERPOL. However, with the trail now going cold and the very real possibility existing that the works of art have already been transferred overseas by air, the dramatic heist is now also being investigated by the DGSE (General Directorate for External Security, France’s military foreign intelligence agency). Given the professionalism of the assault on the Castle, all thoughts of the crime being opportunistic or the work of non-professional criminals are now discounted. The general feeling in intelligence circles is that this was ‘an ordered job’ carried out by local French professional criminals acting as agents for a third party. That third party is almost certainly abroad, well away from French jurisdiction and, according to one intelligence expert, “The smart money is on the artefacts being on the way to The People’s Republic of China (PRC)”. chinese museum

The Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau Castle

It is, of course, highly unlikely that any state actor is involved directly. As explained in yesterday’s story on chineseart.co.uk, several of the stolen items originated from thefts by French troops from the old Summer Palace in Beijing.  This represents an open, running sore in China and the hot theory at the moment is that this job was ‘ordered’ by a wealthy Chinese businessman or art collector (local or ‘overseas Chinese’) concerned with the repatriation of art which was originally stolen from China. It seems highly likely that the objects concerned are already in the PRC and, if that is the case, they will not be seen or heard of again for many decades, until it is politically convenient or suitable for the matter to become public knowledge. As ever, the Chinese take the long view of things and even if these unique artefacts cannot be shown publicly at this time they will be regarded as having been effectively ‘banked’.

Footnote:The International Role of the Poly Group of Companies

The organisation which has been closely involved in the acquisition of stolen Chinese art (legally, of course) is the cultural division of the Poly Group of companies, which has been an arm of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Poly Museum holds bronze heads – also from Yuanminguan and recovered 2000. The Poly Auction house is a well known institution in Beijing.According to the Poly Group’s own public statement, (our italics) ‘Poly Art Museum was founded in December 1998 with the approval of State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China and Beijing Cultural Relics Bureau and opened to public in December 1999. It is the first museum operated by a state-owned enterprise in the Chinese mainland. The aim of the museum is to develop and display traditional national culture and art, and to rescue and protect Chinese cultural relics lost abroad. It has two parts of exhibition: bronze and stone carvings. Most of the exhibits have been retrieved from abroad, and a considerable part has especially high historical and artistic value as they are quintessence or the only existing versions. The “China Ancient Bronze Art Exhibition” displays more than 100 pieces (groups) of excellent bronzes that present the development and charm of China ‘s ancient bronze civilization. The “China Ancient Stone Carvings Exhibition” displays more than 40 exquisite stone carvings from the fifth to eighth century, a peak period of China ‘s Buddhist art. Now the Poly Art Museum is regarded in China and abroad as one of the best known museums in the Chinese mainland.‘In May 2000, the Poly Group retrieved three national treasures – the Cattle Head, Monkey Head and Tiger Head, all made of bronze. They were robbed out of China by western powers from Yuan Ming Yuan Park more than 100 years ago. The retrieve action won approval and support from a large social circle both at home and abroad, and inspired patriotism among the Chinese people, especially overseas Chinese. Poly Group exhibited the treasures in Hong Kong and several other cities including Beijing , Shanghai and Guangzhou and Taiwan . More than four million visitors have seen them during the tour exhibition, which has boosted the prestige for Poly Group and Poly Art Museum .’ The items taken from Fontainebleau would, of course, represent logical additions to the Poly collection. Whether or not that might actually occur at some indeterminate point in the future is, of course, pure speculation.

Less than 10% of all items stolen from French museums and galleries are ever recovered.

Fontainebleau theft: stolen Chinese art previously stolen! Is it on its way back to Beijing?

 

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exclusive sloping to top from Paul Harris

In an ironic twist on the story we reported earlier this week, it is now believed that several of the Chinese art works stolen from the Chinese Museum at Fontainebleau Palace, near Paris, were themselves stolen in 1861 by French troops who looted the old Summer Palace (Yuanminguan).

A full list of the 15 items that were stolen is not available, though there are authenticated reports that among the lifted items were an 18th century Chinese cloisonné-enameled chimera and a rare Tibetan mandala, thought to be originally part of the old Summer Palace collection.

For most Chinese the ruins of the old Summer Palace are redolent of an era of colonial exploitation and ruthless pillage, and there will be little sympathy in China for the loss suffered at Fontainebleau this week.

Indeed, there is some speculation now in Beijing that the items now in turn stolen in Paris might just turn up back in the Chinese capital . . .

Château de Fontainebleau was decorated by Empress Eugenie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon III, with artifacts collected by her and by the sack of the Summer Palace by French and British soldiers in 1860.

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If you are not Chinese, it’s hard to express how raw the150-year-old wound still is. This BBC documentary aired last month puts it in perspective, when it said: “There is a deep, unhealed historical wound in the UK’s relations with China – a wound that most British people know nothing about, but which causes China great pain. It stems from the destruction in 1860 of the country’s most beautiful palace.”

Château de Fontainebleau’s website was offline for most of yesterday. Possibly the site was overwhelmed by traffic, maybe purposely shut down, or even hacked. It is, however, back on today but remains tight-lipped on any further developments.

One of the last times that artifacts originating in the Old Summer Palace were in the news was when one of France’s wealthiest businessmen agreed to return two bronze animal heads in 2013 that were looted by French and British troops in the 19th century.. Several of the original bronze heads can now be seen in person at the Poly Art Museum at Dongsishitiao.

The Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, was built in 1707 under the reign of the Kangxi Emperor and is located in Haidian. It was looted and destroyed almost completely during the closing days of the Second Opium War by British and French troops under the order of the British commander, Lord Elgin, at the time.

Noted French novelist Victor Hugo noted at the time: “All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient … One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits. We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.”

It would, indeed, represent the supreme irony if some of the items so lately stolen were to turn up again in Beijing. We are making no predictions as such but it is a distinct possibility, according to Beijing chatter.

‘£50 million worth’ of Chinese art stolen from chateau in France

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In the early hours of yesterday morning, fifteen highly important works of Asian art were stolen from Fontainebleau Castle 60km. south of Paris, France. In a daring raid which lasted only seven minutes, the thieves broke into a ground floor room at the centre of the castle, part of the so-called Chinese Museum. Glass cases were smashed with chairs and fire extinguishers were used to obscure security cameras. Although the alarm system was activated, by the time security staff stumbled on the scene the thieves had made off.

It was clearly an extremely well planned operation and, in the view of at least one expert, there was probably involvement from within the castle staff. In the view of chineseart.co.uk, the value of the heist could be as much as £50 million (70 million euros).

An 18th century Chinese chimera was amongst objects stolen which also included a rare Tibetan mandala ornament fashioned from coral, gold and turquoise, several Chinese vases and a replica crown of the King of Siam, given to  Napoleon III in 1861. The Chinese chimera dates from the Qianlong period and is decorated with cloisonné enamel.

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Jean Francois Hebert, President of the Chateau, said in a distinctly pessimistic statement, “These are probably very professional people who know the place and the protection systems very well. They calculated their strike and knew very well what they were after. This is deeply traumatic and we can only hope these artworks return to the market one day.” Note he used the word ‘market’ rather than ‘chateau’ or ‘collection’.

The works in the Chinese Museum were collected by Empress Eugenie and have been kept in the Museum since 1863 (see picture below)..

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Hong Kong expert questions security in the China art market

As we reported ten days ago, a heart-stopping presentation during Asian Art in London, sponsored by Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, was made by a Senior Inspector in the Hong Kong Police, also a private art security consultant, Toby J A Bull. In our view, it was probably the most significant talk in a long series of events.

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Toby J A Bull of Trackart Art Risk Consultancy, Hong Kong  Photo Paul Harris

The talk, entitled A Quest for Authenticity in the Chinese Art Market, dealt with a range of areas of concern for dealers and collectors ranging from the nebulous role of Hong Kong in the international trade to tomb robbing, fakes and forgeries, money laundering and theft. He started his presentation with a dramatic quotation from the novel The Gilded Seal by James Twining: ‘Forgery is the paedophilia of the art world. Once the suspicion is raised, you are presumed guilty, even when proven innocent. It’s a shadow that never leaves, poisoning everything you touch. So you need to be either very brave, or very sure that you’re right, before you try forgery in this city . . .’. As a result, the Hong Kong art business is a tightly held industry difficult to penetrate and opaque in the extreme.

Bull emphasised initially that he was not talking on behalf of the Hong Kong Police, although he is a Senior Inspector there. There is no art crime squad within the Hong Kong Police. As he spun his tale, however, it became quite clear why he was not talking on behalf of the Police: the Police Authority simply has no role in preventing illegal activities related to the art world.

The 1997 agreement between China and the UK specifically provided for strict Chinese laws on the protection of cultural relics NOT to apply to Hong Kong: one country, two systems. There are separate Export Laws and in terms of Hong Kong’s Import and Export Ordinance (Part IV), there is provision for a Freeport handling ‘Unmanifested Cargo’ which simply facilitates smuggling. Once goods have passed through the Freeport of Hong Kong they are effectively legitimised with all the necessary export-import paperwork. This is particularly relevant in relation to the import of antiquities to mainland China where an import duty of around 35% is imposed.

The vast volume of goods in containers means that a statistically minute proportion is ever examined. Between 1992 and 1996 (under the UK) HK$ 15 million of Chinese antiquities were seized in HK; the figure went down dramatically between 1997 and 2006 totalling HK$2.3m.; between 2007 and 2012 no Chinese antiquities at all were seized ! Many of these containers carry thousands of copies of antiquities: forgeries. Not only is porcelain copied on an industrial scale within mainland China, but, even, Kuomintang stickers to accompany items said to originate from the haul of evacuated antiquities during the dying days of the civil war 1948-49. The quality of fakes is now extremely high.

There is no unit in the Hong Kong police these days engaged in investigating illegal activities in the local art world despite the fact that large quantities of stolen and forged artefacts pass through the Freeport every week. These include the products of tomb robbing in China. Such looting “requires an elaborate, multi-layered network of grave robbers, middlemen and art dealers.” Such networks flourish in China.

Hong Kong very often benefits. In 2002, antiquities looted from eight outer temples of The Forbidden City were included in a Christie’s Hong Kong auction catalogue and were ultimately withdrawn from sale. Christie’s deemed it an isolated case’ and averred that it ‘devoted considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects offered for sale’.

“The majority of art is stolen for money laundering purposes and art sales are often components of the laundering process,” Bull said. The media usually reports in terms of dramatic value the stealing of works of art. This helps the criminals who will fund their ongoing activities at around 3-10% of such publicised value. Effectively, stolen art is used as a financial underpinning to the China-Hong Kong underworld.

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One of Toby Bull’s slides from his presentation    Photo Paul Harris

In Hong Kong, anti-money laundering regulatory action is based within the Anti-Money Laundering task Force (AMLTF) of which China and Hong Kong are both members. It investigates both financial institutions and Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Profession (DNBFs). Incredibly, the art market is not classified amongst the DNBF’s!

On occasion, thefts are particularly brazen. In April 2014, the Chinese mainland auctioneer Poly International held an auction in the Hong Kong Grand Hyatt Hotel where the hammer went down for the equivalent of US$3.7m. on a painting by the popular Chinese artist Cui Ruzhuo (see below). It was packed up for delivery to the buyer and stacked for collection whereupon it disappeared and has never been seen since. The Hong Kong Police were involved but were obliged to back off after Poly roundly declared it was simply ‘lost property’. Many in the Police Authority believe it was simply stolen and that Poly were keen to have the whole unedifying matter dropped . . .

 

Chinese lots stolen from Chippenham Auction Rooms

A number of Chinese lots were stolen from Chippenham Auction Rooms the night before a recent sale. Although the main targets of the thieves, who broke in through the roof the night before the sale, were European gold and silver items (all were stolen), the thieves had evidently absorbed the fact that Chinese objets were desirable. They took several items. Evidently, they were not experts. They took relatively low value lots and they left a lot of rather more expensive ones.

They took the two lots illustrated below, amongst others: an 18th century blue and white meat plate and a Chinese Song dynasty Longquan carved lotus petal bowl.

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If you have seen either of these items please telephone 101 ext 728295. The incident number is 10977.