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)”.
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.