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


A Century of German Genius: Masterpieces from Classicism to Early Modernism, an exchange exhibition from Germany set to show in Taipei next May, was agreed upon after the Palace Museum assured Berlin there were such legal protections, which the latter demanded.

In order for collections to be safely exhibited in more countries, the Palace Museum is working with the Czech Republic and Austria on similar legislation. However, the possibility of cooperation between Taipei and the Beijing Palace Museums in China -- which the two have discussed many times and the international art world looks forward to -- is still slim. Although Chinese exhibits are protected by the statute, China offers no similar guarantee for foreign countries.

Protecting foreign exhibits from legal disputes, Shih said, is a recent trend among museums worldwide in reaction to the rising international debate on the return and protection of cultural property.

"In these days of multiculturalism, many museums that exhibit abroad naturally risk getting into disputes over the origin of artifacts. Most importantly, countries began to ponder the decline of their culture at the end of the 20th century. In this climate, seeing other countries owning artifacts from your country is a head-on shock," Shih said.

The British Museum has not solved its dispute with Greece over its collection of the Elgin Marbles, or the Parthenon sculptures, which Greece claims was stolen. The 56 sculpted friezes were bought by Lord Elgin in 1806 from the Ottoman authorities governing Greece at the time.

Germany still asks for the return of a Russian collection of paintings, books and jewelry the Red Army seized from Germany at the end of the World War II, including a gold diadem, from ancient Troy. The Turkish Government, as the legitimate authority in present-day Troy, has announced in turn that it would claim it from Germany.

Japan still owns tens of thousands of Korean cultural objects, taken from the peninsula during its colonization. Jewish families worldwide have claimed artifacts from museums in Europe and the US, which were taken by Nazi Germany.

The issue is complicated by the different stances of countries and the long span of time.

"The countries that suffer losses think the other party are thieves. The current owner of the artifacts says the artifacts belong not to any country but to the whole of mankind. Their usual argument is that the other country was in a bad condition and was not able to properly protect its cultural heritage, so they saved the items from mishaps.

"Or they say that the other country did not deem them valuable at the time so they were able to buy them cheap. Their attitude is that they are the savior of these artifacts, allowing the whole world to see the cultural treasures now. Nationalism aside, this kind of argument makes sense," Shih said.

This argument similarly applies to the Palace Museum collection. "If these artifacts stayed behind, [after the Communist Revolution] no one knows what would have happened to them. Even from the one perspective of preserving artifacts for all mankind, our ownership of them is beyond doubt. We preserved them well," Shih said.

Here, people have been asking for the return of their family properties in recent years. In 1999, the National Museum of Natural Science (國立自然科學博物館) held an exhibition featuring an ancient worship tablet of the Yei () family. A Yei descendant who happened to visit the show, came across the tablet and required its return, providing documents showing its origin. Although the museum acquired the tablet legally through antique dealers, it returned the item on condition that the Yei descendants pay for the recreation of the tablet.

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