In ‘Portrait of a Thief,’ Chinese American Students Scheme to Steal Back Looted Art

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Photo of Cantor museum entryway with book cover overlaid
Grace D. Li’s debut novel, ‘Portrait of a Thief’ comes out on April 5. (Collage by Sarah Hotchkiss; photo by Chris Chabot)

In the early 1800s Lord Elgin, a British ambassador, removed sculptures and other cultural artifacts from Athens’ Parthenon. The items, now known as the Elgin Marbles, were later sold by Elgin to the British crown and currently reside in London’s British Museum. The affair is a centuries-long point of contention between the nations of Greece and England, who have spent the intervening years requesting and denying their return, respectively. Were they looted or rescued—or both? Who do they really belong to? As Grace D. Li writes in her new novel about a fictional art heist, Portrait of a Thief: “What is art but another way of exerting power?”

Li—currently a third year medical student at Stanford University—works as a tour guide at the campus’ Cantor Arts Center. In addition to aiding her book research (“It’s nice to be able to walk around a museum and track things like, ‘where are the security cameras?’”), she credits her experience as a tour guide with helping her to “think about the role of museums in preserving history, and how museums take an active role in the cultivation of what we remember and what we observe.”

Photo of woman with long dark hair in brown sleeveless top under a blooming tree
Author and Stanford medical student Grace D. Li (Yi Li)

Portrait of a Thief is her debut novel. It centers on the repatriation of “what the West stole”—12 zodiac statues pilfered from China’s former Old Summer Palace by British and French colonizers during the Second Opium War. Li explains that though it might not be a pivotal event in American history books, the real-life theft is “part of the general body of knowledge” she had growing up as a Chinese American. Li’s parents both came to the U.S. in the 1990s. “That idea of ‘who does art belong to?’ and feeling caught between cultures really spoke to me,” she says, “so I wanted to write about that.”

China is in possession of several of the zodiac statues, but the rest remain missing. Li took this unsolved mystery as inspiration to think through questions of patrimony and ownership. “The zodiac statues are a representation of everything that had been looted from the Old Summer Palace,” she explains, and in her novel, they aren’t missing but displaced in museums around the world. This presents an opportunity for her protagonist Will Chen, who Li describes as the “quintessential, perfect Asian son.” An art history student at Harvard, suave and intelligent Will gets approached by a mysterious Chinese investor who wants him to steal the statues back from the museums. Will quickly assembles a crew of other Chinese Americans and the novel kicks off.

The team fills out heist crew archetypes but in a way that feels natural: Alex Huang is a MIT-trained software programmer who can feasibly parlay her skills into hacking; Will’s sister Irene has the kind of charm and confidence that can “shape the world to her will,” making her the ideal grifter; Lily Wu, whose hobby of street racing has won her many a car, is a natural pick for getaway driver; and Daniel Liang is a steady-handed pre-med student/thief. There’s intergroup tension—some hostile, some romantic—and a lot on the line as this group of 20-somethings essentially agree to sacrifice their futures to correct the past.


Portrait of a Thief is a confident debut for Li, whose writing shows great control at the line level and of the overall narrative. Descriptions are both economic and poetic; the novel keeps a swift pace as the characters crisscross the world, from the American South to the San Francisco Bay Area, to Beijing and Europe. It’s easy to see why Netflix was so quick to nab TV rights for the book.

Horse head sculpture behind glass with people photographing it
The horse head, one of the 12 bronze zodiac animal statues, on display at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, China on Dec. 2, 2020. (TPG/Getty Images)

Though the novel itself is slick, the characters are, realistically and endearingly, not. They are college students and the author’s knowledge of that (lack of) experience ensures their turn to crime is grippingly unsmooth. It also mirrors Li’s own work on the book. “The part where Will is taking notes while watching Ocean’s Eleven was lifted from my real life experience trying to figure out how these movies structured a heist,” Li explains. Other heist research included the Fast and Furious franchise and a Jackie Chan flick called CZ12 (also about the looted zodiac heads).

In the book, Li refers to Will and Irene’s pursuit of Chinese politics and art in school as them “reaching for the country their parents left behind.” The heist is another reach. With it, they’re working through their own relationship to China as members of its diaspora. Li’s first-hand knowledge of the Chinese American experience helps add authentic texture to their fictional experiences. Alex recalls customers over-enunciating their English when speaking to her immigrant parents, and they are all wrestling with being dutiful sons and daughters to their parents (a concept not unique to, but prominent in Asian families) while living their own lives. Also, since Li wrote much of the book during the pandemic and felt a responsibility to not ignore the way it changed the country, the rise in anti-Asian violence is also referenced as another layer of their families’ experiences in America. In this way the book itself is a reach, from Li, using fiction to imagine a new and more righteous future.

Portrait of a Thief’s publication comes at a time when many museums in the West are being confronted with questions of ethics; Egypt and India have joined Greece in demanding repatriation of stolen works from Britain. The book embodies the zeitgeist and the spirit of the Toni Cade Bambara quote Li uses to begin its third act: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”


‘Portrait of a Thief’ is out on April 5. Books Inc. Mountain View (317 Castro St.) hosts a launch party with Grace D. Li in person on Tuesday, April 5 at 7pm. Details here.