How de Young is handling New Guinea art question

Jesse Hamlin, San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday, May 4, 2006

It's hard to resist a story about looted art, whether it involves Italian tomb robbers, Greek marbles in the British Museum or Nazis who love Leonardo. Former Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True is on trial in Rome for allegedly conspiring to buy stolen artifacts. In February, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art finally agreed to return to Italy a rare 2,500-year-old Greek vase and other pieces the Italian government insists were looted from archeological sites and sold to the Met by a dealer who's also on trial.

Then there's the recent news that a handful of sculptures at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum may be the "national cultural property'' of Papua New Guinea, and if so, probably were exported illegally. A story last month in the British science magazine Nature, based on information provided by an Australian ethnologist who worked at the national museum of Papua New Guinea in Port Morseby in the 1980s, strongly suggests that nine pieces in the great Jolika Collection of New Guinea art assembled by John and Marcia Friede -- 400 of which are on view at the de Young -- are on a list of objects deemed the national cultural property of Papua New Guinea and, by law, should not have left the Pacific island nation.

Whether or not that turns out to be true -- an official from the Port Morseby museum who was here last month thinks three of the pieces are on the list -- San Francisco museum officials say this issue shouldn't be compared to the controversial Met and Getty situations. Nobody from the Papua New Guinea government has claimed that the works in the 3,000-piece Friede collection -- a promised gift to the de Young -- were stolen or has asked for their return. Instead, officials are working with the museum and the collector to sort it all out and find a farsighted solution to a very complex cultural issue."

Even if those few pieces in the Jolika Collection are ultimately proven to have been NCP (national cultural property) objects, the question that may be asked is what to do with those few works of art,'' said Evan Paki, the Papua New Guinea ambassador to the United States, in a statement. The collection, wrote Paki, who attended the opening of the de Young last fall when the display went up, "represents an ideal act of preservation of rare PNG masterpieces and our rich art history.

If John and Marcia Friede did not use their own financial resources to acquire these works from private collectors in Europe and Australia, the objects would only remain in private hands and would almost never see the light of day.''John Friede, the ambassador said, "may well have innocently acquired those few NCP objects,'' and if so, "there was, and is, in our view, no illegal conduct or behavior on his part." If the Friedes and the Fine Arts Museums decide voluntarily to return some of the pieces, Paki went on, it wouldn't be wise do so until the Port Morseby museum, which "is in a rebuilding and expansion mode,'' can properly care for and protect them."We need to look at this issue from all different angles,'' Paki said by phone from Washington. He mentioned the possibility of a mutual loan agreement between the two museums, in keeping with the cooperative spirit that has characterized the Friedes' and the museum's dealings with his country, and the fellowship program for New Guinea artists and curators that the Friedes have established here.

Getting all the facts about the works in question is part of "an ongoing process to investigate the origins and provenance of all the objects,'' said Fine Arts Museums director John Buchanan. The whole point, he added, is to get the works out there and "expose them to the general public and to scholars and find out more about them.''

A few weeks ago, Sebastine Haraha, senior technical officer in the department of anthropology at the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Morseby, came to the United States at the Friedes' expense and visited the de Young and the Friedes' home in Rye, N.Y. Haraha examined the works in question (six here, three at the Friedes') and saw the full collection -- spiritual objects whose fantastical forms carry a potent life force -- that the Friedes have spent 40 years assembling. Christina Hellmich, the collection's curator, had contacted Haraha earlier this year when the issue first arose.Haraha brought to San Francisco what Hellmich describes as "partial documentation'' -- copies of government files, which aren't on a database, and some undated photographs -- pertaining to four of the nine works that Australian anthropologist Barry Craig says are listed as national cultural property.

Reached by phone in Adelaide, Australia, where he works at the Museum of South Australia, Craig said he saw several of the pieces out in the field in the early '80s while working in Papua New Guinea. He recognized them in the lavish two-volume book on the Friede collection that the Fine Arts Museums published last year. Last week, the book won first prize in the American Association of Museums' publication design competition.One of the four objects Haraha had files on is a spooky carved wooden mask with a flying fox and bird heads, among other mythical imagery, from a site near Masandamai village, dated A.D. 650-780. Craig said he went out looking for the mask and another piece in the early '80s, when part of his job was to monitor the works listed as national cultural property. He learned that they'd been sold several years earlier, he said, and the sale price and buyer's name were noted in the files.

Last year, he recognized the mask in a story in the Oceanic Art Newsletter about a lecture John Friede had given in Sydney and wrote a follow-up piece in the same journal saying the mask had been taken out of Papua New Guinea without the required permit.In San Francisco, Haraha looked at the mask and the other objects at issue, and "I confirmed that three of those pieces are listed as national cultural property,'' said Haraha, on the phone from Port Morseby. "I'm currently working on trying to go through the files concerning the others in question,'' added Haraha, who will give the Fine Arts Museums whatever additional documentation he finds.

When he finishes his research, he will "write a report on the whole issue and give it to my bosses." They will decide what, if any, action the Papua New Guinea government will take. The law says objects exported illegally should be returned, but that's not his call to make.

The Fine Arts Museums, which have voluntarily repatriated artworks to various countries in the past, have a reputation for dealing with tricky cross-cultural issues in a careful and open manner. In the late '70s and '80s, they negotiated a landmark agreement with the Mexican government over the disposition of prized mural fragments from the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan.The murals had been bequeathed to the museum by San Francisco architect Harald Wagner. Stunned by the gift and concerned about the provenance of these priceless artifacts -- which had been brought into this country legally but probably had been looted from the ruins of Teotihuacan -- museum officials immediately contacted Mexican officials. A U.S. federal judge ruled that the Mexican government had no legal claim to the murals, but the museum joined forces with Mexican colleagues to create a mural restoration and exhibition program, and San Francisco voluntarily returned 70 percent of the murals to Mexico.

The great Olmec head now on long-term loan to the de Young is one of the fruits of that relationship.The Fine Arts Museums didn't have to return the murals, "but we decided it was the collegial, ethical thing to do,'' says curator Kathy Berrin, who was involved in those negotiations and now heads the museum's department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. She has worked with the Friedes for many years and is passionate about showing these objects and "pushing the field along.'' She's upset by suggestions in the press that "we have skipped over due diligence, or have something to hide, when we've put so much energy into trying to do this right, from the get-go."

''The complicated issues of cultural patrimony now being debated in the museum world will be around for decades, Berrin said, "and I'm sure we're not going to get crystal-clear answers. It's always a matter of weighing, trying to get the right balance.''