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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: May 27, 2011 NO. 22 JUNE 2, 2011
Lost in Profits
The Palace Museum is swamped in criticism for failing to take care of precious national treasures

A QUICK RETURN: A policewoman shows recovered gold purses that were stolen from an exhibition in the Palace Museum in Beijing on May 8 (LI WEN)

Last month, the Palace Museum in downtown Beijing, a World Cultural Heritage site recognized by UNESCO, was hit by a series of scandals. The Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, is where Chinese emperors of Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) resided from the early 15th century through the early 20th century.

On the night of May 8, nine gold and jewel art pieces on show at the heavily-guarded museum were stolen.

Several days later, news broke the museum had tried to turn its Jianfu Hall, which is composed of several buildings and a garden, into an exclusive club for the super-wealthy.

The negative news has aroused public concerns about the current situation of China's historical relics, including their security and preservation.

Stolen dignity

The theft on May 8 is the first in 20 years from the Palace Museum. On the night of May 11, the Beijing police detained a man who later confessed to the robbery.

The burglar, Shi Baikui, 28, from Caoxian County in east China's Shandong Province, was caught 58 hours after the exhibits were stolen, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau said in a news release.

Shi was believed to have dug through a temporary wall in the Zhai Gong, or Hall of Abstinence, at midnight on May 8, undetected by any of the anti-theft alarms and surveillance cameras located in the complex, said Ma Jige, Director of the Exhibition Department of the Forbidden City.

The stolen items were on loan from the Hong Kong-based Liangyi Museum, which had lent 19 pieces of wooden furniture and 111 Western-style purses and cosmetic containers to the Palace Museum for an exhibition from April 29 to June 27. "They are worth at least 30 million yuan ($4.61 million)," said Tracy Wong, Curator of Liangyi Museum.

At 8:20 a.m. on May 9, the nine items, gold purses and cosmetic containers embedded with jewels made between 1920 and 1945 including a Tiffany egg-shaped gold cosmetic container, were discovered missing. Two items were found later at the foot of a wall on the eastern side of the Palace Museum. Another four items were recovered after Shi was caught, but three pieces remain missing.

The Beijing police on May 17 offered rewards for people who return the missing items or provide tips on their whereabouts.

Feng Nai'en, Assistant Curator and spokesman for the Palace Museum, said at a news conference on May 11 the burglar had been spotted and questioned by a security guard in the museum at 10:30 p.m. on May 8, but he fled while the guard was calling the security office. For the rest of the night, police officers and more than 20 Palace Museum workers combed the entire museum looking for Shi without success.

Besides ordinary security measures, such as patrolling and technological means used by other museums, the Palace Museum also has a special force of more than 10 police dogs to safeguard the ancient imperial palace. The museum has a patrol crew of 240 people in eight guard divisions. After 4:30 p.m. every day, security guards empty the complex, checking every corner three times. At least 1,600 anti-theft alarms, 3,700 smoke detectors and 400 surveillance cameras run day and night.

"Our work is certainly not thorough enough," Feng said. "However, I hope that people will not lose confidence in Palace Museum security."

There were media reports rumoring that alarms in the Palace Museum did not function during the robbery.

Feng said the museum was undergoing security overhauling security facilities in all its exhibition halls, storerooms and courtyards to find possible weaknesses and had intensified safeguards.

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