San Francisco Chronicle
Novel asks: Who owns art?
Museum heist tale takes a hard look at the legacy of theft
its glitzy European museum settings, late-night street races, sexual tensions and a plot involving an enigmatic Chinese billionaire, Grace D. Li’s debut art-heist novel, “Portrait of a Thief,” out Tuesday, April 5, wrestles with some weighty questions about cultural repatriation and the legacy of colonial crimes. Do museums primarily preserve history, or all too often rewrite it? Who does art ultimately belong to?
“We’re taking back what’s ours,” says one of Li’s quasi-autobiographical main characters, Will Chen. He’s a Harvard art history student and exemplary eldest son hired to “liberate” looted Chinese artifacts from Western museums. Will and his crew stand to earn a $50 million payout if they succeed.
Li, currently a third-year medical student at Stanford University, got the novel’s central idea in 2018 after reading about a spree of thefts of Chinese art from prominent collections. Many of the objects, including famous zodiac heads from a Qing Dynasty fountain, had originally been looted in the 19th century from an imperial residence in Beijing — and the crimes remain unsolved.
“This loss and reclamation of Chinese art felt very personal,” says Li, who grew up in Galveston, Texas, with Chinese immigrant parents, both of whom are research scientists.
A lifelong lover of heist movies and art (she works as a tour guide at Stanford’s Cantor Art Center), Li used the news stories as a jumping-off place to imagine a contemporary crew of amateur thieves, all college-age Chinese Americans and children of the Chinese diaspora like herself, who embark on an against-the-odds heist that has poignant significance for each of them.
Li, now 26, finished writing “Portrait” while attending med school remotely because of the COVID pandemic in 2020, and — no surprise, given its colorful narrative and swoon-worthy locales — Netflix quickly acquired the rights. She’s now serving as executive producer on the series in development.
Li spoke with The Chronicle on a video call about juggling it all, the complexities of Chinese American identity, and why stealing art, even for the noble mission of repatriation, will remain an act of her imagination.
Q: When you first read about the museum thefts of Chinese art, why do you think it sparked your imagination to such a degree?
A: I first learned about the thefts when I was living alone in New York City right after graduating from college. I was amazed that no one knew who was behind them. I think it sparked an idea in me because I’ve always loved heist movies, and I’ve always thought that looted art ought to be returned to its country of origin. And I wondered what this kind of story would look like if it weren’t about expert criminals, but about Chinese Americans like me, college students who are still figuring out their place in the world.
Q: Do you feel more strongly about the need for repatriation after writing the novel? You describe theft itself as a fungible idea, since some artwork that’s sheltered in museums was stolen to begin with.
A: That was a core question for me as I was writing. Our definition of theft is when people steal things from museums, but when museums take things that weren’t theirs, it doesn’t count. Who does art belong to? This whole question really spoke to me.
The thing for me is, I love museums. I love art. I don’t want the book to be taken as a dressing-down of all museums. But when you love someBeneath
thing, you also want to challenge it to be better. Museums have an enormous responsibility as institutions of art and culture to do right by the people of the world.
Q: Because the thieves on your crew are all young and inexperienced, they embark on a crash course to learn about art theft and museum security. Was that like your own research process?
A: Yes, I had so much fun basically taking everything I learned and then having the characters do it. I watched all the “Ocean’s” movies and took notes on the plot beats, how they managed to pull everything off. I read a lot of nonfiction about art crime because I wanted to make sure that it was as true to life as possible. I expected all the large, flashy robberies to be intricately planned, but it turns out most of the art crime that’s happened throughout history is very quick. People just go in while the museum is open, take something and then leave.
Q: It’s amazing that you managed
to write a lengthy, intricately plotted novel while studying medicine. How did you find the time?
A: I also wonder that (laughs). I started the book in 2018, the year after I graduated from college. I entered med school in 2019, and by my third quarter I was back home going to school online. It was really strange. I learned how to put in an IV over Zoom. I was feeling the general sense of helplessness and despair everyone was feeling, but I also managed to finish this book during the pandemic.
Q: Your characters show a huge range of Chinese American experiences and relationships to China — from immigrating to the U.S. as a child to having no connection to China. What did you want to express about their various identities as the children of immigrants? A: The Chinese American experience is so diverse and varied; I wanted to show a spectrum of experience. All the characters have a bit of me in them. My parents came to the U.S. in their 20s to get their Ph.D.s. So I was born and raised in the U.S. and my connectedness to China has changed over the years. Growing up, I faced the struggles that many children of immigrants face, in terms of wanting to belong and feel American, but getting questions about where I was from. I would visit all my extended family in China and they would ask me questions like whether I could speak Chinese or knew how to use chopsticks. As a teenager, I just wanted to belong somewhere, anywhere.