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Act One

Every work of art is an uncommitted crime. — THEODOR W. ADORNO

Chapter 1: Will

"State your name for the record, please.”

This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of twenty-three pieces of priceless Chinese art. Even in the museum’s back room, dust catching the slant of golden, late-afternoon light, Will could hear the sirens. They sounded like a promise.

“Will Chen.”

“And what were you doing at the Sackler Museum, Mr. Chen?”

“I work here part-time. I’m an art history student at Harvard.”

“Did you see anything unusual before the theft?”

“No.”

“Describe what you saw during the incident. Any distinguishing features of the thieves, anything the security cameras might not have caught.”

“It all happened very fast. I looked up from my essay and the alarms were going off. When I ran into the exhibit, they were already leaving. They had on ski masks, black clothes.” He hesitated, just for a moment. “I think they were speaking Chinese.”

For a moment, the only sound was the scratch of the detective’s pen against his notepad. “I see. Do you speak Chinese, Mr. Chen?”

“Yes, I—does it matter? I couldn’t really make out what they were saying. The alarms were going off at this point.”
“Of course. And do you know what they stole?”

Will thought back to the empty room. If he closed his eyes, he could fit the pieces back where they were supposed to go—a pair of jade tigers, a dragon vase. A jade cup with three crested bronze birds, midflight. “Not really. I’ve been gone all summer.”

The detective slid a sheet of paper across the table. “Can you read the title of this for me?”

It was a printout from the Harvard Crimson, from late August. Will swallowed hard. “ ‘What Is Ours Is Not Ours: Chinese Art and Western Imperialism.’ ”

“Did you write this?”

“Yes.”

The detective leaned forward, his fingertips touching. “Tell me if this sounds suspicious to you: A Chinese student writes an article about looted art, and a few weeks later, Harvard’s largest collection of Asian art
is robbed. All the priceless pieces mentioned in the article—gone.”

Will leaned back in his chair. The golden light made everything feel like a painting, and he let his mind drift for a moment, thinking of the paper on Renaissance art that was due next week, the sculpture he still had to finish for his portfolio. “Not particularly.”

“And why is that?”

“I was born in the US, Detective . . .” Will looked for a badge, a name.

“Meyers.”

“Detective Meyers.”

“What is your—”

“I’m Chinese American,” Will said, lingering on the American. He adjusted the rolled-up cuff of his button-?down, imagining how his sister would handle this situation. “You said I was Chinese. But I was born and raised in the US, just like you, and I work part-?time at the Sackler, and three weeks ago the Crimson published a paper I wrote for an art history class at Harvard. Last time I checked, none of those are crimes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have homework to do.”

“This is procedure, Mr. Chen. I just have a few more questions, if you will—”

Will rose. It might have been a small thing, to be called Chinese instead of Chinese American, to have this detective who spoke in a Boston accent look at him as if this place, this museum, this art didn’t belong to
him, but—it didn’t feel like a small thing. Not when he was at Harvard, this place of dreams, and he was so close to everything he had ever wanted.

It was his senior year, and the whole world felt on the verge of cracking open.

“I’ve told you everything I know,” he said, “and I know my rights. Next time you want to accuse me of something, go through my lawyer.”

In Eliot House, with his window open to the warm evening air and the distant sound of chatter in the courtyard, Will took a single jade tiger out of his pocket. The stone was cool, almost cold against his skin. It shone in the halfway light, the jade a pale, almost translucent green, with veins of reddish-brown at the tiger’s head and tail. Despite the centuries, the edges of the carving were sharp enough to cut.

Jade Tiger (one of a pair), the placard had read. Date: 3rd century BCE. Culture: Chinese.

He had one tiger; the thieves had the other. It had been almost too easy to palm it, the glass between him and the art shattered in the theft. He traced a finger along the tiger’s curved back, still a little in disbelief. He was sure it was worth hundreds of thousands, but that wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was that it had been China’s, and then it had been Harvard’s, and now it was his.

He thought back to the paper he had written for class. What is ours is not ours. Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?

From his coat pocket, a card fluttered to the floor.

Will reached for it, his breath catching in the stillness. For a moment, he was back at the Sackler, listening to the rapid, staccato Chinese of the thieves, their voices a counterpoint to the wail of the alarms. He had pressed himself against the wall, his heart pounding in his ears, and yet one of them had still brushed past him on the way out, so close it could almost be called deliberate.

The business card was a matte black, with the words CHINA POLY and an international phone number printed on the front in neat block letters. And below that, in a messy hand:

Nice lift.


Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li is out on 12 April 2022.

  • Portrait of a Thief - Grace D. Li

    A cinematic, entertaining and fast-paced debut novel that is part-Ocean's Eleven, part-The Social Network and part-Crazy Rich Asians, Portrait of a Thief is an addictive mix of heist and unlikely friendships by way of the politics of colonization.

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