For the past 50 years, the return of plundered antiques to their home countries has been a major topic of discussions in museology seminars and of news reports. However, returns remain the exception. Proponents and opponents of returning antiquities appear to be trapped in a game with some very unique rules.
Game participants are the home countries of the plundered items (usually developing countries); the plunderers, who took antiques by force or through colonialization (usually Western countries and their museums); auction companies (representatives of cross-border capitalistic interest groups); the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO,
The first three participants have tried to join the two international organizations mentioned above in order to speak at conferences where the rules are set for the return of plundered antiques. These discussions and conferences put a civilized front on the game and create the illusion that problems may be resolved.
The truth is that the first three participants all have a one-track mind -- they want to win. The Western countries and their museums have tried every possible way to resist returning antiques, in the hopes of maintaining their right to speak on cultural issues deriving from their possession of such items. Take the British Museum for example. It has an endless list of excuses:
* It has been the spokesperson of world civilization and its aim is to promote knowledge of the entire human race.
* It has its own heritage preservation section -- the oldest and the most complete in the world.
* It has promoted the use of its collections by making them available to academic and scholarly research.
* It publishes a variety of materials, holds numerous regular and special exhibitions, lends out collections and puts collections on world tours and provides student research facilities and Web services.
* The museum exists for the whole world's use.
* It has dedicated itself to the preservation and exhibition of human civilization in the past 200 years, a sacred torch that it will continue to carry.
As far as developing countries are concerned, they of course feel the need to stress the cul-tural value of the plundered antiques to their national identity and history. In the hopes of retrieving antiques and installing them in their own museums, they appeal to nationalistic sentiments at home, while lashing out with attacks on colonial imperialism.
Before the recent auction of three precious antiques from the Yuanmingyuan (Summer Palace,
Representatives from the two Chinese companies who eventually won the bidding for the three pieces said their participation had "the approval and support of the Chinese leadership in advance and won praises from the Beijing authorities after the auction." They said the auction "concerns not only the Chinese people's nationalism complex, but also Hong Kong's stability." The three bronze sculptures are to be exhibited in Hong Kong for three days in order that the Hong Kong people can be "educated on patriotism."
These events prove that the Hong Kong auction was no longer a simple antique sale, but had become a political and foreign-affairs incident. Officials from Beijing's State Bureau for the Preservation of Cultural Relics
Auction companies represent a complex global business network comprised of collectors and art dealers all over the world. They are capitalistic in nature and do not intend to be the conscience of human beings.
They claim to obey international auction rules. For example, they hold viewing days the day before an auction during which potential buyers may inspect the quality of the goods to be sold, while owners of lost antiques may also check for any stolen items. However, the houses do not always reveal the source of the items in the collections up for sale. Therefore, buyers can legally possess these antiques.
The book Sotheby's: The Inside Story
After the auction of the Yuanmingyuan antiques, Luo Jia-tong
Of course, the statement was simply cost-free lip service. Extensive media coverage of protests by the Chinese and Hong Kong people caused the antiques to be sold for a price three times greater than their base prices. All told, the two auction companies were the biggest winners.
As the game gradually unfolds, debates over legal, sentimental, historical and political issues are generated. UNESCO and the International Community of Museums, caught between the proponents and opponents, wish to help both sides reach a consensus, so that each member country will have the right to enjoy the cultural heritage of all mankind.
However, both institutions understand the danger posed by international realities and their inability to enforce the rules. Therefore, the reality is that the rule of returning antiques to their home countries is hardly a formal one. Returns are either not car-ried out or dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
In other words, the game rules are still in the process of development. At present, the law remains incapable of resolving the problems surrounding the return of antiques. Greece and Egypt have negotiated for years with the UK over the return of the Elgin's Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. Even with UNESCO acting as a mediator, the parties are far from reaching a consensus or initiating any legal procedure.
There have been many similar cases and most remain unresolved, with neither side budging -- like people who end an argument with the nebulous "I'll get back to you." The efforts of the two international organizations have been futile and quixotic.
In today's civilized world, relatively reasonable mechanisms have been established in many areas for the resolution of international disputes. However, when it comes to the return of plundered antiques, we still abide by the rules of the jungle.
Yui-Tan Chang is director of the Institute of Museology at the National College of the Arts.
In 1955, US general Benjamin Davis Jr, then-commander of the US’ 13th Air Force, drew a maritime demarcation line in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, known as the median line. Under pressure from the US, Taiwan and China entered into a tacit agreement not to cross the line. On July 9, 1999, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) described cross-strait relations as a “special state-to-state” relationship. In response, Beijing dispatched People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft into the Taiwan Strait, crossing the median line for the first time since 1955. The PLA has begun to regularly traverse the line. On Sept. 18 and 19, it
Midday in Manhattan on Wednesday, September 16, was sunny and mild. Even with the pandemic’s “social distancing” it was a perfect day for “al fresco” dining with linen tablecloths and sidewalk potted palms outside one of New York City’s elegant restaurants. Two members of the press, outfitted with digital SLR cameras and voice recorders, were dispatched by The Associated Press to cover a rare outdoor diplomatic meeting on one of these New York streets. American diplomat Kelly Craft, Chief of the United States Mission to the United Nations, lunched in the open air with Taiwan’s ambassador-ranked representative in New York, James
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and
Unlike its previous practice of disclosing the latest activities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a press release, the Ministry of National Defense has in the past few weeks followed the model of the Japanese Ministry of Defense. When carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance of the nation’s waters and airspace, it has posted real-time military activity updates on its Chinese-language Web site, explaining with text and graphs the responses and measures taken by the nation’s armed forces. The disclosed information on PLA activities show that the military is capable of maintaining regional security and safeguarding a free and open