The Enchantment of Things .. or Why Steal From a Major Museum ?
News of the recent theft of a number of early to mid 20th century purses from the Palace Museum in Beijing – a.k.a. the Forbidden City – has been making the rounds.
Here’s the New York Times on the incident that’s caused a couple of red faces in official circles:
A thief hid in the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City after closing time on Sunday night and stole nine 20th-century gold purses encrusted with jewels from a temporary exhibition, embarrassed Chinese officials said Wednesday.
The small Western-style gold purses had been lent by the Li Yiang Museum [sic] in Hong Kong, which in turn had been lent the purses by a Hong Kong art collector.
A Palace Museum worker tried to stop a “suspicious man” inside the museum at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, but the man ran off, prompting the worker to sound an alarm, Palace Museum officials said at a news conference in Beijing. Two of the purses were found in “slightly damaged” condition, they said, but the other seven were taken from the museum.
A spokesman for the Beijing police said by telephone on Thursday that the police had detained a suspect on Wednesday evening and had recovered some of the missing seven purses, although he declined to say how many.
Neither the Palace Museum nor the Li Yiang Museum [sic] tried to assign a value to the missing purses.
The full range of burgled items. Image from China.org.cn.
The round purse in the first picture (top), referred to as the “ball”, is apparently the most valuable of the lot. A piece over at online portal China.org.cn notes that it is a personal favourite of Fung Yiu-fai’s, the owner of the Liangyi Museum, which loaned the stolen pieces to Beijing:
The ball” refers to his [Fung's] favorite piece – a Tiffany egg-shaped gold cosmetic container inlaid with olivine and turquoise stones. Wong said a jewelry appraiser told her that none of the mines that produced this type of olivine is still operating.
After six hours of waiting, Fung and Wong learned that nine gold purses and cosmetic containers covered with jewels were stolen. Two items had been found, but were damaged, at the foot of a wall on the east side of the museum. “The ball” is on the list of missing items.
The perpetrator, one Shi Bokui. Image from What’s On Tianjin.
A lot of the commentary so far has emphasized the culprit’s particular modus operandus: he snuck into the museum via a self-dug hole in a wall, smashed the display cases and took the stuff, returned to hiding, and walked out the following morning without hassle. In his own words, Shi Bokui 石柏魁 of Caoxian country, Shandong province,
… 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.
(Read the full article at er, The Christian Science Monitor.)
Easy as ABC, no?
Thomas Crown has nothing on this guy.
An article in the local Straits Times today though, reveals just why Mr. Shi decided to help himself: “Bewitched by the dazzling display while touring the museum, he went on a stealing spree after everyone had left, he said in a confession on national TV.” (“Red faces over art theft at Forbidden City”, The Straits Times, May 14 2011.)
Shi is far from being the first person to be so turned on in a museum that he let his fingers do the talking, but his DIY, can-do approach to art theft really puts him in a class all his own.
Does it really happen ? – the allure of artistic bling being so great that one hazards all to smash a glass case and simply take something ?
In his rereading of Karl Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish, University of Chicago academic Bill Brown observes that – in the traditional account – the commodity as such is both a sensuous thing and, at the same time, a suprasensible one (both material and immaterial), while commodity fetishism, in its animating of the commodity-form through the privileging of exchange-value rather than use-value, renders those material or sensuous qualities void, since the commodity-form has “absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this” (qtd. in Bill Brown, A Sense of Things [U. of Chicago Press, 2003], p. 28). Brown, however, also gestures at a lack in Marx: the issue of consumer desire, which is tied to the sensuousness of the commodity, and “without which capitalism … cannot be sustained” (Brown, 29), is never addressed. Thus, “it is at the moment where Marx intimates not the fetishism he theorizes but the more pedestrian, not to say less powerful, fetishism through which objects captivate us, fascinate us, compel us to have a relation to them, which seems to have little to do with their relation to other commodities. This is a social relation neither between men nor between things, but something like a social relation between human subject and inanimate object, wherein modernity’s ontological distinction between human beings and nonhumans makes no sense” (Brown, 29).
Commodity allure is the commodity fetishism of the new millennium perhaps ?
In any case, Shi, I think, has now become its public face.