Of the 10 million objects estimated to have been looted from China during the Century of Humiliation from 1840-1949, only a fraction have been recovered through the art and auction trade. Some extremely notable works like the 12 heads from the Zodiac clock designed for the Chinese Emperor’s Summer palace by a Jesuit priest became celebrated standoffs. A Chinese dealer bid for the two heads included in the Yves St. Laurent-Pierre Bergé collection sale and won. But the dealer refused to pay on principle that the works were stolen. Bergé refused to donate the works to China citing human rights violations by the current regime.
Artist Ai Weiwei picked up on the cultural importance of these objects by creating his own series of Zodiac heads, pictured above.
Christie’s parent company eventually broke the impasse by acquiring the heads and giving them as a gift in 2013. GQ magazine suggests that China might have embarked on a global initiative in 2010 to repatriate looted works with their own extra-legal campaign. According to GQ, a series of robberies at museums in Norway, France and Sweden seem to have been connected and highly targeted:
They often seem to be working from a shopping list—and appear content to leave behind high-value objects that aren’t on it. In each case, the robbers focused their efforts on art and antiquities from China, especially items that had been looted by foreign armies. Many of these objects are well documented and publicly known, making them very hard to sell and difficult to display. In most cases the pieces have not been recovered; they seem to simply vanish. After that first robbery, in Stockholm, a police official told the press that “all experience says this is an ordered job.” As the heists mounted, so did the suspicion that they were being carried out on instructions from abroad. But if that was true, an obvious question loomed: Who was doing the ordering?
The Great Chinese Art Heist (Gentleman’s Quarterly)