Back in 2018, GQ, a US men’s magazine published by Conde Nast, ran an article raising the question of whether the Chinese government might be behind a series of thefts of Chinese antiquities from European museums since 2010.
The article was speculative, and its evidence circumstantial. It should also be noted that it was well reported. The Beijing-based author talked to Chinese sources and offered other plausible explanations for the series of museum robberies, including patriotic collectors finding ways to acquire items and return them to China.
Even if the article came to no very definite conclusion, it waved a finger generally in the direction of an officially inspired effort to regain looted artefacts. That would be in line with Beijing’s long-standing position that any cultural artefacts that have been removed abroad belong to China, regardless of who outside the country claims ownership, and should be returned. The National Cultural Heritage Administration is tasked with such reclamation work.
However, the dotted line that led to the implication of government sponsorship for the thefts was a research trip to international museums the year before the thefts started by a team from the China Poly Group, a state-owned enterprise under the supervision of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, which is a State Council agency.
China Poly combines the unlikely businesses of acting as an international arms seller for China’s defence industry and running the world’s third-largest art auction house. However, it has always played a role in locating and returning Chinese antiquities that have found their way out into the world.
When the article was published, the suggestion that the government had dispatched ‘a treasure-hunting delegation’ to find looted Chinese art caused outrage, with China Poly, refuting the allegations and threatening to sue Conde Nast. There is no record this Bystander can find of that happening, and the issue seemed to fade away.
However, the article is now being turned into a Hollywood movie called The Great Chinese Art Heist. The film will focus on a 2015 robbery of 15 pieces from Fontainebleau, the former royal chateau near Paris. The bulk of the collection there had been taken from China by French soldiers in 1860 when Beijing’s Old Summer Palace was sacked.
That being the subject of a film alone would touch a nerve in China. However, the word from Hollywood is that ‘it was the Chinese government that bankrolled it’ will be the dominant plotline.
Whether that turns out to be the case on not, it has already sparked renewed outrage in China, with social media buzzing with accusations that the movie is another Western ploy to discredit the country. The company producing the film, Warner Bros. has been widely accused of insulting China.
The director will be Jon Chu, who directed the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians. That film’s success makes it likely that The Great Chinese Art Heist will get a high-profile launch.
Yet the sequel this Bystander is now awaiting is to the hack of Sony Pictures in 2014 after the film studio upset North Korea with a movie that included the fictional assassination of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Warner Bros is part of a media assets spin-out that its parent company, AT&T, is currently undertaking. WarnerMedia is to be merged with another media company, Discovery, which owns Conde Nast. The merged company will be called Warner Bros. Discovery, with the tagline “The stuff dreams are made from”. This deal is due to be completed next year.
The potential cyber nightmares are endless. A ransomware attack of ambiguous attribution between signing and closing the deal to fund an art repurchase fund, perhaps? Or a deepfake version of The Great Chinese Art Heist with an alternative plotline that it was all planned in Ft Detrick?