Man stole 143 art masterpieces and replaced them with his fakes
In a heist worthy of a Hollywood plot, a librarian at a leading Chinese fine arts gallery has been accused of stealing 143 paintings by master artists over the course of two years and replacing them with his own forgeries.
Xiao Yuan (57) told a court in southern China that he had substituted his own forgeries for the famous works while overseeing a gallery within the library of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts between 2004 and 2006.
The paintings that he stole included landscapes and calligraphies by some of China's most vaunted artists, including a work from Bada Shanren's 'Rocks and Birds' series, which is worth an estimated 45 million yuan (€7m).
In his defence, Xiao told Guangzhou People's Intermediate Court that the theft and forgery of art predated his employment and was commonplace at the library.
Xiao said he realised just how rampant the practice was when he noticed some of his own fakes had been replaced by new forgeries.
"I realised someone else had replaced my paintings with their own because I could clearly discern that their works were terribly bad," Xiao said in a video of the hearing posted on the court's website.
During the hearing, Xiao pleaded guilty to a corruption charge, apologised to the university, colleagues and family and said he deeply regretted his crime.
Between 2004 and 2011, Xiao sold 125 of the paintings for more than 34 million yuan at the Guangzhou branch of China Guardian Auctions, one of China's leading auction houses. Xiao used the money to buy property and other paintings.
The 18 remaining stolen artworks in Xiao's collection are estimated to be worth more than 70 million yuan (€10m).
The works had not been sold because the auction house dismissed them as forgeries, Xiao said.
Xiao began working at the university library in 2003, when he was hired to digitise the gallery's collection of paintings and calligraphies.
As chief librarian, he was privy to a set of master keys, giving him access to the gallery at weekends when it was closed to the public, according to Southern Daily, a state-run newspaper. This allowed Xiao to obtain the genuine paintings and replace them with his ersatz work unnoticed.
Xiao was finally caught when a former student of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art noticed the university seal on artworks for sale in Hong Kong. Xiao was arrested in May 2014 and will be sentenced at a later date.
Other works stolen by Xiao include paintings by Qi Baishi, an influential 20th-century artist famed for his watercolours depicting nature, and Zhang Daqian, who painted landscapes.
Zhang was himself considered a master forger.
A number of high-profile art forgery cases in recent years have proved that the tradition is far from dead in China. (© Daily Telegraph, London)