By SINCLAIRE SOLOMON
AT least six national cultural property objects, illegally exported to the United States in the late 1970s, may be coming home at last.
They are part of the Jolika Collection, owned by American philanthropists John and Marcia Friede, which were donated to the San Francisco city’s de Young Museum and are currently on public exhibition there.
Their imminent return followed discussions and agreement reached between visiting Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Charles Abel, John Friede and de Young officials in San Francisco last Wednesday.
The milestone agreement, which acknowledged that a total of nine artifacts in the Jolika Collection were the property of the people of PNG, came after years of wrangling between the PNG government and Friede over the ownership question.
Abel pursued the matter last month after it transpired that international auction house Sotheby’s New York and Paris had taken about 36 artifacts from the collection, through a court order, to sell for money owed by the Friedes.
Last week, he travelled to the US to reinforce the government’s position that national cultural property objects, which were illegally exported, must be returned.
In San Francisco, he met with museum director John Buchanan and John Friede, as well as other museum and city officials, to express the government’s concerns over the recent sales of items from the Jolika collection which could have cultural significance to PNG.
More particularly, Abel highlighted the government’s position on the nine national cultural property artifacts, all illegally taken out from the Sepik River region.
“An agreement was drafted and signed that committed both parties to the preservation of the Jolika collection, the recognition of the claim by Sotheby’s on a part of the collection and an undertaking to pursue jointly an option to raise funds to buy out the remaining Sotheby’s debt,” he said in a statement.
“The agreement also noted the PNG government’s claim to the nine objects, six of which are in the current possession of the de Young Museum.”
Abel said Sotheby’s was aware of the ownership question and would not lay claim to any of them to sell to recoup money – several millions of dollars – borrowed by John and Marcia over the years to collate the Jolika collection, arguably the best collection of New Guinea (PNG and Indonesia’s West Papua) in the world.
He described the collection as “a wonderful advertisement of our country”.
“We are grateful for the efforts of John Friede and the de Young Museum in preserving the collection, some of which were collected in the 1800s and may otherwise have deteriorated and been lost for forever,” Abel said.
The minister also visited the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he met with the board of directors and signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation with the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery.