You’re not supposed to touch the art, but it seems people love a good art heist story. Portrait of a Thief, a novel by Grace D. Li, follows a group of college students tasked with an impossible mission: stealing back five bronze sculptures originally from Beijing’s Yuanming Yuan (Old Summer Palace), now housed in major museums around the world. The reward? $10 million each.
The novel weaves in critiques of institutional collections with the challenges of being a first-generation student. Harvard University art history student Will Chen leads the unlikely group of aspiring art heisters: Irene, his sister and a student at Duke University; Alex, a software engineer who dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pursue a job in Silicon Valley; Daniel, a close friend and pre-med student; and Lily, Irene’s roommate and a streetcar racer. Despite their disparate interests, they share the pressure of living up to their families’ expectations. As Chinese American students, they toe the line between being successful students at big-name institutions on their way to successful careers, and disillusioned 20-somethings caught in the allure of a major art theft.
The novel bounces between points of view, with each character imagining what it would be like to use the money to quit their jobs or help their families. There are clever twists, like the slow revelation that Will is actually an artist at heart, lending him the skills to make replicas of the pieces — so that the US Customs and Border Protection see a fake on the way into a new country and the real thing on the way out, but can’t distinguish between the two. Or that Daniel’s father just so happens to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as an investigator focusing on Chinese art.
While some parts of the plot require a stretch of imagination (somehow the group goes from feeling insecure to deftly plucking their first artwork out of a museum), it’s no more of a leap of imagination than what watching Ocean’s Eleven requires. There’s a lot to love about the characters’ confidence. During one of the heists, Lily casually hot wires a boat and jettisons across the waves, while Will throws his art replica into the water. Irene gains access to spaces through her irritatingly effective people skills and manages to obtain a WiFi password that the team ends up crucially needing later.
Art thefts are also real-world phenomena, of course. In 2021, Netflix released a mini-series about the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist, called This Is a Robbery. And art has imitated life — Black Panther fans might recall the memorable scene when Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan) stands in front of a museum display and talks to the curator about looting. Though the item he refers to belongs to Wakanda, there’s a clear reference the dubious origins of African art in museums. The scene echoes the novel’s central questions around the complicated politics of belonging, ownership, and repatriation. It comes as no surprise, then, that Portrait of a Thief is being adapted by Netflix.
While readers don’t need a deep knowledge of art history to read the book, art lovers will chuckle at a few art world critiques and references. Will explains he used a grant from his school’s art department to get materials for the fake art pieces, “an application where he made up more than he should and also used the words performance art. It wasn’t quite a lie.” The biggest element of this performance art piece, though, lies in how the college students keep their cool with their day-to-day college lives while pulling off a huge criminal undertaking.
In between discussions of CCTV and a heartbreaking scene with Daniel’s father, there’s an intimate examination of first-generation anxieties, both financial and otherwise. In the same way that the close surveillance of security cameras make their art heist goals that much harder, the students are being “watched” by their families, pressured to be the ideal version of themselves. The students often feel cornered when it comes to their life path. Alex, for example, hates her job but wants to support her family with her salary. In fact, none of the images the students present to the world truly align with their interiorities.
Even the characters’ connections to China are more complicated than it seems. Daniel has a nostalgic view of his homeland, tied to his grief over his mother, while Lily doesn’t have a strong connection, but yearns to learn more. The students come together in the idea that repatriation is significant — that these items belong back where they originated, and that museums need to fess up. There’s a moment when Will openly asks a museum tour guide (small spoiler: they aren’t who they seem) to talk about how the pieces were acquired. The conversation makes everyone present uncomfortable.
We’d be remiss, of course, not to mention the real-life controversy around the sculptures that inspired the heist in the first place. Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” are reinterpretations of the original heads which the art heist crew in the novel is stealing, the artist’s reproduction part of his ongoing outspoken critique of China. During a 2009 auction, art collector Cai Mingchao seemingly out-bid everyone for two of the heads, before stating he wouldn’t pay anything since they were looted items that belonged to China. Though neither of these references come up in the book, they nevertheless illustrate how the issue of belonging continues to be contested in real life.
Portrait of a Thief imagines how a wide-scale art heist might influence institutions to reckon with issues of art repatriation — or at least what would happen if some overly confident 20-somethings proved the life of museum objects isn’t as clear-cut as it seems.
Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li is published by Tiny Reparations Books and is available on Bookshop.