Sat, May 27, 2000 - Page 8 News List

Antiques still subject to jungle law

By Chang Yui-Tan 張譽騰

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, 聯合國教科文組織) and the International Community of Museums (which seeks, from a global perspective, to preserve and display antiques as common assets of the entire world).

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, 圓明園) took place in Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities released a statement, accusing the two auction companies involved in the sale of "ignoring China's dignity and national interest (and) seriously injuring the Chinese people's feelings."

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."

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