A Chinese man has been arrested in France on suspicion of planning the theft of valuable artworks from the Palace of Fontainebleau, which houses several pieces looted by British and French soldiers from the Summer Palace in Beijing in the 19th century.
According to a report by Spanish newspaper El País, Hu Shouyang, 45, recruited five members of a Spanish criminal gang to carry out the theft in exchange for a payment of €800,000 (US$888,600).
The group was headed by Juan Maria Gordillo Plaza – also known “Juan the Kid” for his small stature – who is well known to the Spanish justice system.
Police sources were quoted as saying the gang, which travelled from Spain to France to carry out the heist, targeted several porcelain items from a collection of Asian art put together by empress Eugenie de Montijo, the consort of the French emperor Napoleon III.
Hu is also suspected of having links to a mafia-type criminal group in China, the report said.
French police said they were alerted to the gang’s plans by their Spanish counterparts via Europol, and had been tracking them since they crossed the border on December 21, the El País report said.
Officers then watched as the Spaniards entered a sports clothing store to buy dark-coloured clothing, and later as they bought an axe, picks, screwdrivers and other material typically used in violent robberies, it said.
The gang was also seen checking in to a cheap hotel near Fontainebleau – which is about 55km (34 miles) southeast of Paris – where two of them are alleged to have held a meeting on December 26 with three Asian individuals, one of whom was Hu, the report said.
Police moved in to make the arrests in the early hours of December 28, the day the theft was meant to take place, it said.
The six suspects were being held in custody on charges related to organised crime and attempted criminal activities, the report said. They have all denied involvement and said they were tourists.
The police sources said that while the gang appeared to have been targeting porcelain items, it was not immediately clear if they were among the works looted from the Summer Palace.
French and British soldiers ransacked the royal garden in Beijing in 1860 after looting many of its treasures.
Didier Berger of the French police told French media that officers found photographs suggesting the gang was planning to “steal works of art of Asian origin that were on exhibition in the museum”.
Jean-Luc Boyer, who was involved in the police investigation, told the BBC: “Was it ordered and ordered by an Asian country? We can’t say that now.”
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