The Art of The Heist

Cat burglars, priceless jewels, elaborate heists. Thanks in a large part to Hollywood, art crime has a glamorous, even benign, reputation. But the reality is, it can actually have deep, dark links to other forms of organised crime. Noah Charney, Art Historian and author, referenced Isis, who looted and sold valuable antiquities to fund their terrorist activities, as an example.

This week's episode of Undiscovered asks: can such shadowy motives be tied to a spate of heists targeting Chinese art? Or, is there another explanation hiding in plain sight?

Starting in 2010, the robberies have targeted high-end collections across Europe ranging from the Swedish Royal Residency to The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. In each case, Chinese art was specifically targeted, even when other valuable pieces were nearby. Even stranger, much of the stolen art has been tied specifically to Beijing’s Old Summer Palace which was looted in 1860 by British and French troops.

In China, the events of 1860 have become a national scar. It’s one of the key events, along with other attempts by powers to colonise and plunder their land, that makes up what they call the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (1840-1849). The Old Summer Palace, which has been preserved in it’s ransacked state, remains a public and potent symbol of both past indignity but also the immense progress made since Second World War.

“Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain.”

Victor Hugo, On the looting of the Old Summer Palace

In contrast to that time, China now wields awesome financial and geopolitical power - it’s is home to more billionaires than any other country. This has had an impact on the rising interest in repatriating Chinese art by purchasing it from foreign collections. In this episode, we hear how people like Liu Yang of the Yuanmingyuan Institute ("Yuanmingyuan" is the Chinese name of the Old Summer Palace) are trying to return these pieces to China legitimately; unpick the economic, cultural and ideological factors which muddy the water around these heists as well as and how they interplay with a larger debate around repatriation.

Listen to the episode here.