Dag Fosse/KODE Art Museums of Bergen
Seven marble columns from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, acquired more than a century ago by a former Norwegian cavalry officer who had settled in China, are set to return home this fall under an agreement between a Norwegian museum and a Chinese businessman.
The columns are part of a 2,500-piece collection of Chinese artifacts in the KODE Art Museums of Bergen that were donated by Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe between 1907 and 1935.
Under the terms of the agreement reached in December, Huang Nubo, a real estate developer perhaps best known outside of China for trying to purchase land in Iceland to build a golf resort, will donate 10 million Norwegian krone, about $1.6 million, to the museum.
In return, the columns will be sent back to China this September and displayed at Peking University, Mr. Huang’s alma mater. The university, which is adjacent to the grounds of the Old Summer Palace, has also established an academic cooperation program with the museum.
The deal comes as diplomatic ties between Norway and China remain frozen, after the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the 2010 Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese government, which sentenced Mr. Liu to an 11-year term in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power,” reacted angrily to the Nobel decision, recalling its ambassador from Norway and shutting down trade talks.
Mr. Huang’s donation will comprise half the amount the KODE has budgeted to refurbish its China exhibition space, said Erlend G. Hoyersten, the former director of the KODE Art Museums who has since become director of the ARos Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark.
According to Mr. Hoyersten, the museum’s decision was made after lengthy discussions on how to manage its China collection, one of the most extensive in Europe.
“For many, many years the museum had 21 columns but was displaying only seven, due to space limits,” Mr. Hoyersten said in an interview. “I thought, if we’re not allowed to use the items in our collection, then other people should have the opportunity to enjoy them.”
A burglary at the museum in January 2013, when thieves made off with more than two dozen objects from the China collection, left considerable damage. It was the second recent theft from the collection, following a break-in in 2010, and led to its closure.
Mr. Huang, chairman of the Zhongkun Investment Group, said by email that he had heard that the museum’s China exhibit area needed repairs, and was fascinated that its collection included pillars from the Old Summer Palace. He agreed to sponsor the museum after meeting Mr. Hoyersten at a cultural event last year.
Though few in Norway, or even his hometown of Bergen, know his name, the museum owes much of its China collection to Mr. Munthe.
Mr. Munthe began his career as a cavalry officer in the Norwegian army, but in 1886 made his way to China, where he worked in the Chinese customs service. He fought on the Chinese side in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War and was named a lieutenant general by Yuan Shikai, who would later become the first president of the Republic of China.
Mr. Munthe became an avid collector of Chinese sculpture, pottery and other artifacts, including the seven plinths. It is unclear how he obtained them.
The marble columns, featuring carvings of flowers and foliage, were once part of the vast imperial compound, renowned for its beauty, called the Old Summer Palace. The destruction and looting of the palace grounds by British and French forces in 1860, during the Second Opium War, is seen by many in China today as a pivotal event among the foreign incursions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Efforts to return relics from the site are often discussed with nationalistic overtones, cast as markers of China’s return to prominence after its “century of humiliation” by foreign powers.
However, Mr. Hoyersten and Mr. Huang insist that theirs is a purely nongovernmental agreement.
“This is not a political action,” Mr. Hoyersten said. “If it has any positive impact then that’s great, but that’s not our goal.”
Mr. Huang said that his decision to donate to the museum was a personal one, but he also sounded an optimistic note regarding relations between China and Norway. “Spring will always come,” he wrote. “Bilateral relations cannot be frozen forever.”
The Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman Svein A. Michelsen said the government is not a party to the project, but is glad of the “happy outcome.”
Norway’s foreign minister, Borge Brende, who took office in October, has cited improved ties with China as a priority. His previous experience as an adviser to the Chinese government on environmental issues may help pave the way, but the Chinese side has so far stood firm.
“That Foreign Minister Borge Brende and Prime Minister Li Keqiang are close friends makes no difference,” a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry official said in October, according to the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad. “Norway has created this situation, and Norway will have to solve it.”
In recent years, some in Norway have questioned whether the government should have so openly endorsed the Nobel Committee’s decision, said Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, a research organization. The Nobel Committee is not connected with the Norwegian government.
“Some say that the economic costs are too great,” Mr. Sverdrup said in an interview. “Others say the government put too much emphasis on human rights and should recognize other enormous developments and achievements in China.”
Although China is hardly Norway’s most important trading partner, it is still significant and Beijing’s economic pressure has been felt, he said. “There have probably been a lot of lost opportunities.”
Apart from the political tangles in this particular deal, the rightful ownership of historical artifacts is a thorny issue in itself, and not only in China.
Mr. Hoyersten said discussions at KODE considered possible reactions of other European museums, but maintained that the decision was based “not only on ethical but also practical considerations.”
“We’re not telling other museums that you should return your collections,” he said.
Although KODE has a significant collection, it is dwarfed by the vast holdings of Chinese antiquities, including from the Old Summer Palace, in some British and French museums.
In 2003, a Chinese government-affiliated foundation established a fund to “aid the government to promote the inflow of overseas national treasures,” according to a website managed by the Ministry of Culture. The foundation has organized trips to foreign museums to catalog relics and to negotiate for their return. State-owned companies and private businessmen have also gotten involved. The Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho was praised by Chinese state media as a patriot for buying two bronze animal heads that had been taken from the Old Summer Palace for nearly $10 million and donating them to Chinese museums.
The huge sums paid for such objects have led to a debate about whether their importance is overplayed. Chen Lusheng, deputy director of the National Museum of China, once dismissed the bronze heads, part of a water clock designed by an Italian Jesuit, as “water faucets made by foreigners” and not national treasures,according to Xinhua. Others, however, argue that they hold great symbolic value for China.
The Chinese State Administration of Cultural Heritage, an agency under the Culture Ministry that oversees museums, did not respond to a request for comment regarding the return of the columns.
Though the timing of their return will fall close to the 60th anniversary in October of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Norway and China, Mr. Huang said this was unintended. The original idea was to transport the relics in June, he said, but this was revised because the Norwegian side will be taking summer holidays then.