How an amateur stole $1.5 million in art from China's Forbidden City

A reportedly amateur thief this week stole nine bejeweled purses worth $1.5 million from the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Andy Wong/AP
A tourist looks at a policeman standing in front of the entrance to the Palace Museum, where 20th century art pieces on loan from the private Liang Yi Museum in Hong Kong were exhibited inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, May 11. Seven art pieces were stolen form the visiting exhibit as officials scrambled Wednesday to figure out how thieves broke into China's famed Forbidden City.

Few cities in the world are kept under such close surveillance as Beijing, and the high-walled Forbidden City contains some of China’s greatest national treasures.

So how come an amateur thief, apparently on a whim, managed to spend Sunday night in the museum, smash open a display case, steal nine bejeweled purses worth $1.5 million, and walk out undetected the next morning?

That’s the question that has been burning up Chinese Internet chat rooms this week, and the authorities don’t seem to have many answers. China’s ever-present and supposedly well-informed security services are looking more like Keystone Kops.

“The police make me laugh again,” wrote one netizen on the Netease portal.

The police managed to wipe some of the egg off their faces by arresting the suspected thief three days after the robbery. They picked him up in a Beijing Internet café, which like all such establishments in China was obliged to install security cameras that relayed images in real time to a local police station.

They presented the suspect to the media on Thursday. Shi Baikui said he had visited the Forbidden City as a tourist on Sunday evening, decided when he saw the golden purses and powder compacts to steal them, and had hidden until the museum closed. Then he broke open the display case, grabbed his loot, and hid himself again until morning.

The authorities say that a museum guard detained “a suspicious man” on Sunday night, but that while he was telephoning his superiors the man ran off. An all-night search by guards, policemen, military police, and museum staff failed to locate him, according to Feng Nai’en, the Forbidden City spokesman.

Even the People’s Daily newspaper, the official organ of the ruling Communist party, could not conceal its disbelief; an unsigned article posted on its website on Friday posed a number of awkward questions: If the guards had followed the rules and patrolled the museum grounds three times after closing time, once with sniffer dogs, could Mr. Shi have evaded detection? Did no security alarms go off when the display case was broken? Are the guards really so feeble that they let a suspect flee when they had already caught him?

As often happens in China, the lack of answers to such questions and the general obfuscation surrounding the case (the theft was kept secret until Wednesday, for example) has fueled all kinds of conspiracy theories.

“There must be some covert malice,” suggested one blogger. “Some powerful people did this. So they found a scapegoat. The whole thing is such a fake!!!”

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