Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Paper on Parade: Art Theft in Taiwan and China

This week in our semi-regular feature, Paper on Parade, I'm taking a look at a fascinating 2002 paper on art theft in Taiwan and China by Tseng Suiliang.1 I've blogged on art theft and Taiwan once before (a weird, absorbing tale), but this is the first academic piece I've located on it.

Tseng begins his discussion by noting that plundering of antiquities is not new. In the late 19th century westerners began collecting art objects from Taiwan, among them the famous missionary G. L. Mackay, who built up quite a collection prior to his death in 1901. They were followed by the Japanese, who, as in so many other areas, mimicked the practices of western colonialism:
It was at this time, as they looted and plundered the Taiwanese countryside, that Taiwan lost its own indigenous cultural materials. Most of these are now housed in museums in Japan such as the National Anthropological Museum in Osaka, which has more than 3,000 indigenous Taiwanese cultural objects and the National Museum in Tokyo, which houses over 1,000 such objects (Chen Oinyu, 2000: 23).
Systematic looting by the Japanese, followed by neglect under the Nationalist developmentalist state, resulted in considerable cultural loss. Ironically, as the Taiwan identity expanded since the 1970s, demand for local antiquities has skyrocketed, resulting in even more plundering of local archaeological and historical sites.

Since the 1990s, as interest in art has grown, art museums, galleries, and institutions have also been the targets of organized theft. The 9/21 quake, which damaged many historical sites, also triggered a wave of antiquities theft covered by the disorganization of the quake damage. Tseng also gives numerous examples of modern art disappearing:
Commercial galleries with their clear indication of prices were also targeted. Thieves often disguise themselves as customers. In 1994, after a succession of six gallery thefts in the district of Daan in Taipei, the owner of one of the galleries wrote a letter to seek help from the head of the police force in Taiwan (Wang Huanzeng, 1994). Another example, in 1997, a stone sculpture by artist, Yang Zhengduan, was stolen from the Venus Gallery, a commercial gallery, in Hualian, when it was on display at its entrance. The gallery manager said that the sculpture was so heavy that he had supposed no thief would try to steal it (Anon, 1997: 128).
Art theft is shaped by two factors: the sophistication of the thieves, and the demands of collectors:
He Mingzhou suggests that art thieves are particularly sophisticated and well informed about the works they take. Some are art school graduates (Shi Ye, 1999: 102; Hua, 1999: 103). For example, in an early morning raid in the Gudao Art Centre in Taizhonng in 1993, thieves stole over 100 Chinese seal stones worth 30 million NT$ (£635,940). The staff indicated that the thieves seemed to be professionals regarding Chinese seal stones, because they not only picked the more valuable seals, but also left fakes untouched. They entered the centre and fled with their loot in less than seven minutes (Ma Yuanpei, 1993).

With organized gangs involved in the operation, the means of disposing of stolen paintings have become particularly efficient. Groups of thieves manage thefts and control the distribution of stolen goods. Some art dealers are aware of these groups, but will not expose them. One anonymous art dealer expressed a wider concern:

‘There is no point in uncovering them, as they will stay in jail for only two or three years. Anyway, most of those professional thieves will return Art smuggling and theft in Taiwan and China to stealing after they are discharged from prison. Our business policy is always to find an excuse so as to refuse the purchase of their stolen goods but not to offend them’ (Hua, 1999: 103).

At the heart of these theft groups are buyers who drive the whole enterprise (Shi Ye, 1999: 101). One anonymous connoisseur, who is suspected to be a chief instigator of art theft, told a journalist that thieves can steal works of art to meet certain collectors’ demands and those collectors will give plenty of time to allow the thieves to finish the job (Hua, 1999: 104). This seems to be the reason why some thefts are of particular pieces only. In the case of the Ou Haonian raid, thieves took away only his paintings and left other valuable paintings untouched (Lin Nanyue, 1995).
As Taiwanese became wealthier, they naturally turned to art from China, especially after 1987 when the China market opened, and after the 1990s, when businessmen seeking ways to repatriate money from the China market turned to smuggling art objects. This resulted in the development of highly organized, technologically advanced, internationally linked crime syndicates which specialized in art theft and art smuggling. Demand for Chinese antiquities exploded -- at one point thieves dismantled a 12 meter high Buddhist pagoda with over 3,500 bas-relief sculptures and shipped it from China to Taiwan, where the police eventually recovered it. Tseng has personal knowledge of the art market, and the level of detail in this piece is delightful. Here is part of his discussion of the use of fishing boats in art theft:
Mobility of fishing boats means that smuggling is very successful. Mr. Liu, the owner of the Pushiyuan in Taipei, who used to be a poor sailor, took advantage of these boats to smuggle a great many precious seal stones to Taiwan in the early 1980s, from which he made a fortune.8 These smugglers have devised many ways to avoid detection. For example, since 1990, Taiwanese art dealers have smuggled a great number of ancient stone sculptures out of China by fishing boat. These are seldom found by the marine police, as the sculptures are trailed below the sea on metal wires (Liu Junyao, 1992).

Smugglers deal with paintings and calligraphy differently. According to on-the-spot coverage by journalists of China Times Weekly, Taiwanese art dealers put them in a waterproof packaging and fix an electronic device inside. When the fishing boats approach Wuqi Port [in Taichung], fishermen throw the packages into the sea. The electronic device gives off a signal, which permits smugglers waiting at the port to detect them and gather them one by one (Zhao Musong, Huang Yuanliang , Li shiwei and Zhang Liren, 1991: 27). Old furniture, by contrast, is dismantled and packed in waterproof packaging before being loaded into fishing boats. After arriving at the port in Taiwan, the furniture is reconstructed as well as repaired in workshops (ibid.).
Taiwanese businessmen move their stuff to Hong Kong and abroad by ordinary cargo containers. Tseng writes that Pan Suiyan, who owns the Regent Hotel in Taipei, recalls shipping 27 containers full of objects from China to the US. He moved so much stuff it was necessary to construct a dedicated warehouse for it.

If collectors don't want to engage in antiquities smuggling themselves, organized crime has been kind enough set up a reliable illegal system (someone should write a dissertation on the existence of illegal but reliable institutions in Chinese culture, like the Mark 6 lottery, the illegal cross-strait remittance system....) to enable individuals to get the antiquities they want:
Most Taiwanese art dealers or collectors do not want to risk passing through Customs in China. To meet overseas customers’ requirements, an illegal delivery service run by art dealers in China, so called ‘Pay for goods in China, take delivery of goods in Hong Kong’, was introduced in the early 1990s (Zhao Musong, Huang Yuanliang , Li Shiwei and Zhang Liren, 1991: 27). Customers just need to pay part of the money for goods as a deposit in advance after they have seen the goods in China and made a decision. Local dealers in China can help them to smuggle the goods to the hotel that they will stay at in Hong Kong as well as collect the rest of the money for the goods from the customer. Normally, only those very rare cultural objects are smuggled out of China in this way, as smugglers have to take more risks and consequently require more money to pass through the Customs. In most cases, they need to bribe the Customs officials and the police in China to escape inspection.
A piece I read on this last year suggests that after drugs and weapons, the illicit trade in art is the third largest in the world. Like drugs and guns, without strong international cooperation, the global heritage is going to slowly vanish into private collections, its educational and historical value suffering grievous harm.

1Tseng, S. (2002) Art Smuggling and Theft in Taiwan and China. Museological Review, Issue 8, 2002.
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Anonymous said...

There's all kinds of public art I wish they'd steal in Taichung. There is an entire park full in Nan Tun and a certain winged...horse-man that is now at the Taichung County courthouse in Da Li.

readin said...

I find the choice of words interesting. Was G. L. Mackay really "plundering" ( to take the goods of by force (as in war) - Merriam Webster)?

Were the objects purchased? Were the collected from places where they had been abandoned? In hindsight, it may seem unfair to the descendants of those who did the abandoning or those who did the selling. But at the time, how was Mr. Mackay to know that someday their descendants would want those treasures back? Were their no others around, such that they could find their own if they wanted to collect them?

I'm assuming, admittedly a dangerous thing to do, that Mackay, a missionary whose reputation has done well through time, was not forcing anyone at gunpoint. To call his actions "plundering" strikes me as a questionable choice of words.

Michael Turton said...

Sorry, Readin, the way I cut the paragraph distorted the meaning. THEY are Japanese anthropologists and ethnologists, not Mackay.