Chinese Whispers: The Myths and Realities of the Stolen Fitzwilliam Treasures
With police distributing posters and leaflets around Cambridge tonight, and ports and airports alerted to the theft, Varsity examines what has become of the Chinese treasures stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum two weeks ago today.
Police investigating the theft of 18 Chinese artifacts from the Fitzwilliam Museum will tonight be distributing appeal leaflets and posters as they continue to trace a white van believed to have been involved in the burglary. This comes only days after ports and airports were alerted to the theft.
With many contradictory opinions regarding the whereabouts of the artefacts, mainly, with a value estimated at £18 million, it is difficult at present to see through the mist of what has been named 'Operation Tundra'.
Detective Chief Superintendent Karen Daber, of Cambridgeshire Police, said:
“We have contacted enforcement agencies at ports and airports nationwide. It is possible the items have already left the country and we have circulated details to police forces internationally.”
Opinion is divided on whether the objects are still in the UK, but there is only one suspected destination: China. Experts also agree that the theft will not have been on the behalf of one individual collector, condemning the idea as merely fiction.
Noah Charney, editor of 'The Journal of Art Crime', and author of The Art Thief, argues that the objects could already be in China. He wrote for the blog ARTINFO that:
“This theft, and others of Chinese artifacts[sic] in particular, is almost certainly not for one collector (that almost never happens in real life), but rather a harvest of salable[sic] goods to be sent to China, where the objects might already be."
He adds that: “The market for Chinese art is so much greater in China than elsewhere [...] and selling stolen art is so much more difficult in the West, that China is really the only logical destination.”
Speaking to the BBC yesterday, Dick Ellis, who headed the Metropolitan Police's Art and Antiques Unit for 10 years, agrees that the idea that an unknown collector is behind the crime is fantasy.
“In 30 years of investigating this type of crime, I've found this type of billionaire collector has been found not to exist- it's a media myth,” he argues.
“The police will be circulating details to the antique trade and that will make it very difficult to pass it on to any legitimate or semi-legitimate dealer”.
However, he disagrees with Charney's speculation that the items may already be in China. He added:
“I would've thought you are looking at this beinga British raid rather than a Chinese group committing these thefts. Therefore, the likelihood is that they are still in the UK.”
The criminals are certainly well organised, with CCTV checks showing the van believed to have been involved arriving in Grove Lane at 7.26pm on Friday April 13, and appears heading out of the city on Trumpington Street at 7.38pm.
With the raid itself taking under 10 minutes, it is no surprise that ports and airports have been warned to be on alert. It is agreed that the destination is in all likelihood China, and that the group is not acting under the instructions of a single collector.
The race is on for Operation Tundra to track the items before they leave the country, if they are in fact still in the UK at all. Once the items are abroad, it will be incredibly difficult for police to continue the search, as Charney makes clear:
“Internet black-outs mean that many in China could not check stolen art databases, even if they were inclined to do so.”
The Fitzwilliam Museum is still planning to host the largest collection of royal Chinese artefacts to travel outside China in the upcoming exhibition 'The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China', which opens on 5 May.