Suspect held over Palace Museum burglary

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 May, 2011, 12:00am


Mainland police last night arrested a suspect following a burglary at the Forbidden City in which seven precious art pieces owned by a Hong Kong collector were stolen.

Officials said the theft on Sunday was the first from the Palace Museum in 20 years.

Beijing police said that a 28-year-old suspect, whom they named as Shi Bokui, from Shandong province, had been arrested at an internet cafe in Beijing's southern district of Fengtai.

Shi had confessed to the crime and some of the stolen valuables had been recovered, according to the police's official microblog.

Early yesterday, the People's Daily website quoted Vice-Minister of Public Security Zhang Xinfeng as saying the police had identified a suspect who had a criminal record. Zhang also announced the launch of an eight-month nationwide crackdown to stop the rampant theft of national cultural relics.

The stolen pieces - seven European powder boxes and cases made of gold embedded with precious stones - were among 130 from Hong Kong collector Peter Fung Yiu-fai's Liangyi Museum, a private collection, which was co-organising the exhibition with the Palace Museum of the Forbidden City.

Wong Ha-hung, curator of the Liangyi Museum, said Fung was excited when told of the suspect's arrest. Earlier, she said it would be an irrecoverable loss if the objects were not retrieved but refused to put a value on them. She was quoted by Beijing News as saying the total loss was in the millions of yuan.

'Out of trust for the Palace Museum we insured the seven pieces for 310,000 yuan [HK$371,000], way below what they are truly worth,' Wong said.

Palace Museum spokesman Feng Naien apologised twice during a media briefing at the Forbidden City.

'We have a compelling obligation after what has happened and will improve our security capacity,' he said.

After 18 months of preparation, the exhibition, Contrast and harmony: selected vanity cases and Chinese furniture of the Liangyi Museum, opened in the Forbidden City on April 29 and was scheduled to end on June 27. It has been closed temporarily while police investigate.

Feng said staff approached a suspect in the Forbidden City at 10.30pm on Sunday. But the suspect escaped while staff called their duty office. Police had been unable to find him.

Feng said they had no idea how the suspect walked out of the museum, bypassing multiple security measures, including cameras, security staff and dogs.

Ma Jige, deputy director of the Palace Museum's exhibition department, said it was a tragedy and he was wracked with guilt. He went to the exhibition hall on Monday and saw a large hole in the temporary decoration wall inside the hall and 'a total mess' on an exhibition case.

Nine pieces were missing, but two were found in the museum grounds on Monday. Both were damaged and one case was disfigured and a mirror inside was broken.

Wong said Fung decided the next day to continue the exhibition by sending more artefacts.

One of the stolen artefacts, a round Tiffany powder case made in the 1950s, was Fung's favourite piece. Wong said as far as she knew it was the only one of its kind.

Fung had been hoping it was safe while waiting for updates from Beijing. 'He said three times 'It's OK as long as that piece didn't get stolen'.'

Feng said there had been five other cases of theft at the Forbidden City, the latest in 1991, and all had been solved.

He said surveillance cameras should have recorded what happened and would assist police but the Beijing Evening News, quoting an unnamed source, said the thief had cut off the electricity that evening so the surveillance centre did not have any footage. Thousands of surveillance cameras inside the Forbidden City are connected to the city's public security authorities.

The thief clearly had knowledge of the artefacts, Wong was quoted as saying, as a failed attempt was made to break into an exhibition case holding the most precious items.

Fung, 64, is well known in investment circles. He has been director of listed companies SHK Hong Kong Industries, formerly Yu Ming Investments, and Coolpoint Energy, which attracted investment from well-known gymnast and entrepreneur Li Ning . The deal is said to have made Fung HK$700 million.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has demanded that all mainland museums carry out inspections for security loopholes, and remain closed until they can guarantee security arrangements.