Sun, Jul 27, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Fighting over cultural treasures

An exhibition in Germany featuring works in the collection of the National Palace Museum highlights the politics at the heart of art

By Vico Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

All works from the treasures of the Sons of Heaven exhibition in Berlin.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM

On July 16, two days before the opening of Treasures of the Sons of Heaven, (天子之寶) a 400-item exhibition from the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) collection at the Altes Museum in Berlin, government and museum officials were busy fielding questions about the legitimacy of these centuries-old Chinese artifacts.

The questions were raised mostly by German media, such as Der Spiegel and the television network ZDF. Not until the opening ceremony on July 18, when Klaus-Dieter Lehman, president of the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Property, made clear to the public that the artifacts were not looted during the war did the matter come to something like a conclusion.

As even Taiwan's cultural exchanges with other countries are seldom free of Chinese attention and sometimes intervention, the museum authorities were afraid that China would try to claim ownership of the collection, though the Chinese government has not done so, so far.

The Palace Museum and Berlin's Altes Museum had been in negotiations for 11 years to secure the exhibition, until the German parliament passed an amendment to the culture preservation law, in 1998. It safeguards the return of on-loan foreign exhibits, preventing the items from being retained in Germany in case of a legal dispute.

Despite assurances that the Taiwanese museum is the rightful owner of the 400 items, as well as its entire collection, Shih Shou-chian (石守謙), vice director of the Palace Museum, admitted that legal protection is a reasonable safeguard against risks, especially when the countries where they are displayed are not Taiwan's allies.

"If anyone makes a claim on the collection, it will be retained indefinitely until the dispute is solved, which takes several years at least, during which time the collection will be a waste," Shih said.

"The last Qing emperor Fu Yi (溥儀) handed over the then Palace Museum collection to the government of the Republic of China during the latter's takeover. At the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the government took the best of the collection with it from Nanking to Shanghai, Guizhou to Sichuan, and then back to Nanking after World War II. During the civil war, the government took the collection with it to Taipei. This history shows the collection belongs to the ROC government," Shih said.

The Palace Museum currently has 650,000 items, including some from the then Central Museum in Nanking, plus donations and acquisitions in Taiwan.

"On the other hand, there is political reality to consider. We were worried that the Chinese government will try to claim ownership because, as far as they are concerned, there is no Republic of China, thus they consider our collection was stolen from them. But we say we are a sovereign state. We lost everything back then except this collection," Shih said, "The two sides have their respective stances, and we have understand that."

Before the museum's exhibition in the US in 1990 and in France in 1996, it also made sure the two countries had laws to prevent foreign exhibits from being retained in their countries.

As for Taiwan, an article in the "Statutes for the Awarding and Subsidizing Art and Culture" (文化藝術獎助條例) states that "works of art from foreign countries and mainland China on officially-recognized exhibitions are exempt from prosecution and being retained."

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