Stockholm, Sweden, 2010
A small mystery had begun unfolding in the Swedish capital. People going out that evening were confused and scared, several cars across the city had lit up in flames, and nobody knew exactly why. The police soon arrived, but they too were baffled by what they were seeing.
Several kilometers away on the outskirts of the city, a group of masked men made their way towards the Dronningholm Palace, the private residence of the Swedish royal family. Their target, the Chinese Pavilion, which had countless works of historic art on display.
The men made their way in through the back door, and began smashing display cases, grabbing whatever they wanted. This immediately triggered the alarm systems of course, and alerted the Swedish police. But the robbers remained calm though, because they knew exactly where the police was.
The burning cars in the city had been a distraction orchestrated by the robbers, and the police had fallen right into their trap. The police soon raced towards the palace, but by the time they got there the robbers were already long gone. They were in and out in less than six minutes!
Upon inspection of the crime scene it was discovered that many priceless artworks had been stolen. The police later found out that the thieves had made their getaway on scooters to a lake, where a speedboat had been waiting for them, but from there the trail went cold.
The authorities remained calm and optimistic though! As in situations like this the artworks are usually recovered. Very few people are actually prepared to sell high profile art works such as these, because the pieces are often too difficult to sell.
But what the police didn't realize at the time, was that this was anything except an ordinary art heist!
Five months later in the city of Bergen in Norway, masked men descended from the glass ceiling at the KODE Museum. Grabbing vases, imperial seals, and more.
In 2012 in Durham, England, thieves broke into a museum at Durham University, stealing high value porcelain sculptures and bowls. That same month the museum at Cambridge University was also hit.
Then in 2015, in Paris, intruders smashed their way into Château de Fontainebleau, the former residence of the French monarchy, which had more than 1500 rooms full of treasures! The thieves got away with artifacts so rare, that they were considered the masterworks of the royal chateau.
But what was so special about these break-ins?
All the thefts had many aspects in common. Cars were lit on fire as a distraction, the actual thefts were quick and efficient, getaway methods were often identical, but most importantly all the stolen items shared one characteristic, they were Chinese.
The first break-in was at the Chinese Pavilion, the second targeted the China Collection, the third was at the Oriental Museum, and in France it was the Chinese Museum that was targeted. All heists were targeting Chinese antiquities, and it seemed like the robbers were working from a very specific shopping list. They knew exactly what they wanted and where each piece was located, only taking the artifacts that were on the list and then ignoring other high value art works right next to them.
Interpol was tasked with finding the perpetrators behind these thefts, since the heists were clearly international. But even they had a hard time solving these crimes. And in the years that followed, Chinese art heists continued across Europe. The theory of intelligence agencies at the time was, that the criminals were carrying out instructions from abroad as ordered jobs.
But who was ordering these heists then? Why would anyone steal such famous and well documented art works that can neither be legally sold on the open market or displayed?
The majority of the stolen art never resurfaced, which makes it much more likely that it ended up in someone's or some organization's private collection. As the years went by it became one of the many unsolved mysteries in the world. But upon closer inspection signs pointed to an elite group of people.
Back in 1860, at the end of the second opium war, British and French troops marched towards the Old Summer Palace, the main imperial residence of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing. The men were seeking revenge for their murdered friends, who had been tortured and then killed a few weeks earlier, while attempting to negotiate peace under a prearranged flag of truce.
When the Europeans reached the palace, they didn't hold back. They destroyed anything in sight, and the old summer palace was pillaged and looted. Sculptures, jewelry, and even Pekinese dogs which were unknown to Europeans at the time, were among the many things taken from the palace as trophies. Once the soldiers were done, they burned the rest to the ground.
Most of the art made its way back to Europe, where it ended up in the hands of private collectors and royal families. Queen Victoria was gifted the first pet Pekinese dog in Europe, which she actually named Looty! Over time many of these relics made their way into museums across Europe.
China is one of the countries that has suffered the most from the loss of antiquities. From foreign powers taking home art works, to Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution that destroyed much of its cultural history. Recently support has been building inside the country for the return of lost art, with the Chinese government officially supporting repatriation, in particular the items stolen from the Old Summer Palace. The government has created a global information network to locate and reclaim lost antiquities, which as they put it have been "illegally robbed away by western powers". As a result certain people have taken it upon themselves to secure the return of the art.
Chinese billionaires are part of a new trend of buying up Chinese art from around the world, which is an opportunity for them to not just show off their wealth, but also their patriotism. One theory suggests that they might be behind the art heists, as many of the Chinese artworks around the world are not up for sale, and on display in private collections and museums. The idea is that these wealthy elites are funding free agents to steal and bring back the art, and are then hiding them away.
But on the other hand, Chinese laws on theft and intellectual property are very different. The issues of selling or exhibiting the art might not even be a problem within China. There's also the justification that many Chinese are feeling, that since the art was originally stolen from them, it can't be considered a real crime.
But billionaires aren't the only suspect.
Some believe that the Chinese government themselves might be responsible. The Chinese government has made it very clear that they want the lost and stolen art returned, and hasn't shown any concern for the art heists in the past. One report even said that one of the stolen artifacts was on display in Shanghai's airport. Norwegian police did follow up on this lead, but the Norwegian government stopped them, since they didn't want to start a diplomatic incident.
If the Chinese government is involved, it would most likely be through the state owned China Poly Group. This company started as an offshoot of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army, as their arms manufacturing wing, and has since evolved far beyond this. They don't just sell missile systems anymore, but are also involved in international trade, real estate, and surprisingly the buying and selling of artworks. They run the third largest auction house in the world, and the company today has declared assets of $140 billion! China Poly Group has denied any involvement in the heists, but has refused to share any information on their retrieval processes.
So who stole all the art? For now nobody knows, but all signs point towards China.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this story!
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