Chinese Librarian Steals $17 Million in Artwork, Replaces Them With Fakes

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A librarian at a Chinese university stole precious 17th and 20th century pieces of Chinese art and got away with it for years by replacing them with fakes, only to find that his fakes looked so real that they were later stolen and replaced with new fakes.

Xiao Yuan, 57, stole the art, which mostly consisted of landscapes and calligraphies, and replaced them with forgeries he made between 2004 to 2006 while working at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Security was lax enough for Xiao to remove the artwork and then replace them. Students and professors could borrow art just as easily as they could borrow books from the library.

To Xiao’s surprise, he soon noticed that his fakes, which could easily be passed off as real, were stolen by others and then replaced by inferior fakes. Xiao, who was the university’s chief librarian until 2010, said he didn’t know who the culprits are. As the Associated Press reported, Xiao told Guangzhou People’s Intermediate Court:

“I realized someone else had replaced my paintings with their own because I could clearly discern that their works were terribly bad,”

Xiao also said in court that he noticed several pieces at the library were fake on his first day working there.

Xiao was caught after an employee noticed the fakes and went to the police. He pleaded guilty in court and said that he deeply regretted his crime. Xiao said he stopped stealing when the works of art were moved to another gallery.

From 2004 to 2011, Xiao sold 125 artworks at auction and made more than 34 million yuan ($6 million). Xiao allegedly used the money to buy apartments and other art.

The rest of the artworks, 18 pieces, had not yet sold and, according to prosecutors, their estimated worth is 70 million yuan, ($11 million).

The stolen pieces included paintings by Qi Baishi, a 20th century artist who used watercolors, and landscape designs by Zhang Daqian. A 17th century painting, a Zhu Da masterpiece called “Rock and Birds,” was also stolen.

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