• 14/09/2017

The Theft of Art

The Theft of Art

By Richard Norridge

In China, rather than museums and cultural institutions being the victims of theft, as it tends to be in the West, it is often the homes and offices of high net worth individuals or public figures that are targeted by art thieves. China also struggles with a huge counterfeit art market. A 2012 Artron study estimated that about a quarter of a million people in China are involved in producing and selling fake art, which has been said to often jeopardise the successful sale of authentic pieces.

Yet in a country where the number wealthy individuals is rising rapidly and such individuals tend also to have an increasing appetite for fine art , there are no specific criminal laws that focus on either the theft of or counterfeiting of art works or heritage items. In fact, applicable laws absolve auctioneers or consignors of any responsibility as to fakes.  Further, China does not yet have a domestic database of stolen art of cultural property, unlike many European and North American countries which makes it extremely difficult to monitor let alone police thefts and forgeries.

Will things change? In 2012, the Chinese government acknowledged that the art industry and market have issues and it might therefore introduce new legislation to target those problems. It has been reported that the government is aiming to crack down on the “three fakes”— fake works, fake sales and fake auctions. There has yet to be any progress in that aspect.

Here is a list of pointers on the background and recent developments in art theft and forgeries.

The Art of Theft

Cost, Development and Impact

  • Art theft is not just limited to Europe and the Americas – over the last 5 years China has become one of the leading art markets in terms of revenue. In 2011, China was cited as the leading art market in the world.
  • The cost of the theft of art and antiques in the UK alone every year is estimated to exceed £300 million[1]. The media frequently cites the statistic that trafficking in cultural property is the third most common form of trafficking, after drug trafficking and arms trafficking.


  • In Europe, the targets of art theft tend to be museums, galleries and institutions. By way of comparison, targets in China tend to be wealthy individuals,  even goliaths such as the Forbidden City have been the victim of theft.
  • Europe appears to be the victim of a growing trend of “thefts to order” often suspected to be sourced for and requested by Asian buyers.


Faking it

  • China’s historical approach to art presents its own problems.  In China, artists are frequently trained to imitate the old Chinese masters.
  • The number of artists who create copies of Chinese works of art is growing. Fake art works have caused concern within the Chinese art market and doubts over the authenticity of a number of works of art sold via auction houses.
  • Doubts over authenticity have led to a number of high net worth sales in China not being completed.
  • China’s existing legislation prevents any substantive reform or clean-up of the art market.  The applicable laws currently absolve auctioneers or consignors of any responsibility as to fakes.
  • The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China does not contain any specific provisions which refer to the theft of art works or heritage items means that it is difficult to police thefts of art and to enforce any specific penalty in the event that a fake work of art or a stolen work of art is sold at auction or otherwise.

Chinese art thefts

  • A Chinese farmer Shi Baikui was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, deprived of his political rights for three years and fined 13,000RMB for stealing nine pieces of art made of gold and jewels from the Forbidden City.

Chinese forgeries

  • The late Qi Baishi, a modern master of Traditional Chinese Painting, has been the victim of a huge number of forgeries and is so extensively “faked” that no one can be sure if Baishi’s painting are authentic unless the painting has either been recorded in his lifetime or his family can verify that the painting is an original.

Major Asian art acquisitions

  • It was reported that in November 2013, a series of art auctions in Hong Kong held by Christie’s Auction House raised HK$3.82 billion (£300 million), almost twice as much as estimated, as affluent collectors from China and elsewhere in Asia paid record prices for several items, including a Qing dynasty porcelain jar which sold for HK$64.52 million (£5 million).


Why is this type of crime on the increase?

Lack of Centralised Resources and Records

  • Unlike many European and North American countries, China does not yet have a domestic database of stolen art or cultural property.
  • The lack of any centralised record in China means not only that there is an ineffective approach to the registration of thefts of artworks in China but that policing the theft of artis increasingly difficult.

Increase in Prices and Profile of Artworks

  • In December 2013, Sotheby’s sold on behalf of the Art Institute of Chicago a large swirling abstract from 1958 by Zao Wou-Ki for which a record 89.7 million RMB (£9 million) was paid by Zhang Xiaojun, a collector from Shanxi province.
  • The huge prices being realised in the market means that good forgeries are seen as an ever more lucrative business.
  • The huge expansion of the art market in China has created a frenzy of purchasing which the regulators cannot keep up with.
  • The number of buyers is so great due to the raised profile of works of art in China, the increase in the wealth base in China over the last few decades and the fact that some see the purchases as a way of capturing the past.

What is being done?

  • The Chinese government has acknowledged that the art industry and market has issues and in 2012 it indicated the possibility of introducing new legislation to target these problems.

It has been reported that the government is aiming to crack down on the ‘three fakes’: fake works, fake sales, and fake auctions which have damaged China’s art market’s reputation internationally. BM