WHEN the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum reopened last fall in its bold new Golden Gate Park quarters, a sample of artworks from John and Marcia Friede's collection was its most celebrated addition.
The fierce and whimsical pieces from Papua New Guinea -- ritual masks, dance ornaments, totemic works adorned with beads, shells and even human skulls -- embody a people who in many ways have changed little over the centuries.
The promised gift to the museum is considered the most important private collection of artifacts from the isolated Melanesian island nation. At about 3,000 pieces, it would transform the De Young into "the country's leading center for the study and preservation of New Guinea art," the museum proclaimed.
Indeed, the works quickly attracted attention. Now it appears that nine -- six on display in San Francisco -- are designated as "national cultural property" and likely should never have left Papua New Guinea.
This has led to uncomfortable, often inexact comparisons with battles over allegedly looted works at other U.S. museums. Yet the issue for the De Young is complex, with odd twists and alliances, including an ambassador from Papua New Guinea who has hinted that the works should stay, some Western experts who think they should go and a museum left squarely in the middle.
Rather than a clear-cut tale of right and wrong, the case of Papua New Guinea's cultural property illuminates the evolution of art world ethics with a Third World twist.
Although De Young officials say they are awaiting more records from Papua New Guinea's National Museum, a representative recently traveled to San Francisco with documents that indicate the works are protected. Among the items is an elongated pigment-stained wooden mask with a round-eyed startled expression from the Middle Sepik River region. The Friedes have had it carbon-dated to AD 650 to 780 -- by far the oldest wooden artifact among the approximately 400 works on display.
It was the De Young's proud unveiling of works from the collection that prompted two anthropologists to recognize some of the treasures. Their alert led to comparisons with the controversies over claims of looted antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and elsewhere, which have prompted the return of some works and agreements regarding others.
But no one has suggested that the pieces at the De Young were stolen or looted, though exactly when and how they left Papua New Guinea remain unclear. Rather than antiquities unearthed in illegal excavations, these are ethnographic artifacts that in some cases were in the hands of villagers whose clans have created and traded carvings for centuries.
The De Young is in an awkward limbo: John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the De Young, emphasized that the museum does "not collect material that is illegally exported, to the best of our knowledge." But the De Young does not yet own the more than $100-million collection, so it is not in a position to return any items. It is also loath to alienate John Friede, who sits on the board.
Most important, impoverished Papua New Guinea -- plagued by so much corruption that treasures have been sold or spirited out of the country by National Museum staff -- has not yet asked for the pieces back. In fact, the country's ambassador to the United States has suggested that they would better benefit Papua New Guinea from the safe confines of San Francisco.
Ambassador Evan Paki credited the Friedes with rescuing the objects from private collections where they "would never see the light of day." The Friedes have advanced the understanding of his country's heritage with their collection and research, said Paki, and are now investing in its future through a De Young program to award grants to living artists. "We have to take a balance of views and not simply be driven by a sense of nationalism and patriotism," Paki said in an interview. "Ultimately we want to promote Papua New Guinea art and artists in the U.S. It's a huge market."
The way to San Francisco
FRENCH Surrealist Andre Breton once wrote, "African art is the earth, and South Seas art is the sky."
John Friede was similarly captivated.
The healthcare entrepreneur and heir to the Annenberg fortune from Rye, N.Y., and his wife, Marcia, began collecting African tribal art but shifted their focus four decades ago. Over time, Friede said, the collection "became a creature of its own with its own possibility."
With the blessing of their children, John, Lisa and Karen (the collection is named "Jolika" for them), the Friedes decided to bestow the works on an art museum to keep them together. The Met seemed a likely choice, but Friede is put off by the European focus of many East Coast art museums. Situated on the Pacific Rim, the De Young was more likely to attract new museum-goers, Friede thought. And in its stunning new earthquake-safe building, it had gallery space that the Met lacked.
"This is not an art that's known," he said, "so it has to reach out."
Described as the "last frontier on Earth," the vast island of swampland, river valleys and highlands that is Papua New Guinea was first explored by Westerners only in the 19th century. A land of 700 languages, its art channels an astonishing array of tribal ancestors and spirits.
In the early years, the art was practically free. One suspension hook -- intricately carved figurative devices hung from the beams of homes to keep religious and other objects away from rats -- was collected on a 1935 expedition in exchange for a cotton loincloth, or "laplap," Friede notes in a detailed two-volume catalog.
Friede said he sought to include as much information on provenance -- or history of ownership -- as he could. But not surprisingly, there is no such chain-of-ownership information on the pieces recently called into question, although in some cases there is striking detail on the location of the find or even on the original owner.
A carved suspension hook of a copulating couple dominated by a woman who resembles a praying mantis belonged to a family who moved after their home was bombed during World War II, the catalog says. The same is true for a hook in the shape of a regal female with articulated vertebrae and birds perched on each shoulder.
Friede said he had "no idea" how the pieces under scrutiny got out of Papua New Guinea, "but I don't think it's my responsibility to know." He did not export them himself, he said, and was unaware of their designation as national cultural property when he bought them in Europe or Australia, although he declined to specify exactly where.
The flap unfolded this way: One U.S. anthropologist researching an article recognized two pieces in the Jolika collection as Papua New Guinea's cultural property. Barry Craig, a curator at the National Museum in Papua New Guinea's capital from 1980 to 1983, recognized another in an Oceanic arts newsletter. A friend mailed Craig the Friede catalog, and when he set his more than 20-year-old list of national cultural property next to it and compared descriptions and photos, he counted nine matches.
Craig, now at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, dismisses the ambassador's contention that the pieces are better off in the hands of the De Young, saying that is like arguing "that a bunch of Yanks going into the Yucatan ... and chain-sawing some stuff out of some Mayan temple and putting them in the Metropolitan is a better way of preserving Mayan culture."
"The real issue is a moral one," Craig said. The point is that Friede appears to be "in receipt of stuff that's been illegally exported. That can't be OK by anybody's standards."
There is no love lost between the men, who met in Papua New Guinea years ago. Craig expressed disdain for "Americans of a certain wealth pattern who find their immortality by donating ... to art museums." Friede, meanwhile, described anthropologists as "Marxist types" and attributed the "clamor" to Australian expats "who have a very paternalistic attitude toward the country and believe it's their responsibility to speak for the poor little natives."
Still, Friede has not closed the door to negotiation. He recently paid for a National Museum employee to visit his home with copies of cultural property documents. The employee also spent time at the De Young.
"I would be happy to cooperate with them about what's legal and proper," he said, suggesting an eventual loan, if the National Museum can improve its security. "I am certainly not sending back pieces that I bought with my money or my children's money. I am not going to give them away."
The De Young wrestles
THAT leaves the De Young to wrestle with whether to accept the questioned objects.
Buchanan notes that the museum voluntarily returned a painting once owned by Louis XIV to the Louvre after determining that it had disappeared from the Elysee Palace in the 1950s and worked with Mexico to restore and repatriate part of a bequest of fragments from a Teotihuacan mural.
Buchanan said "it was not apparent in the curator's initial research of the objects that were selected for special exhibition that any were on said national cultural patrimony list," even though Papua New Guinea officials cooperated with the museum to prepare the exhibition.
His curators, meanwhile, in a written response to questions, said they still do not know whether "an official list of national cultural property" exists, noting the National Museum has shared only "some scanned documents and photographs."
Indeed, the obscure nature of the list appears to be at the heart of the problem.
Although a record of pieces designated as national cultural property is maintained by the National Museum in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby, it "is not accessible through a database or on the Internet," Buchanan said. Even within Papua New Guinea, the 1965 law defining and protecting such property seems to have been flouted often.
Enforcement and any request for repatriation falls to the museum, now struggling to emerge from an epoch of poor management, scarce resources and soaring crime in the capital.
National Museum Acting Director Simon Poraituk, who could not be reached for comment for this article, has told the local press that the nine Friede pieces are cultural property and that the museum wants them.
Paki, the ambassador, said he asked Poraituk to prepare an electronic copy of the cultural property list with color images but has not yet heard back. The museum is stepping up efforts to crack down on illegal cultural property exports, but he pointed out in a recent letter to Buchanan and Poraituk that "it appears the appropriate circumstances do not presently exist" for repatriation.
Friede was more blunt: "They have no electricity most of the time. There was a fire and the fire department didn't come. I know people who've been shot on the grounds of the museum."
The controversy has left Friede feeling somewhat embittered. "I am not an enemy of New Guinea. When you collect the art of a place as intensely as I do, you collect the place."
He and his wife recently found carvings of a man and a woman in a Seattle private collection, he said, and carbon dating indicates they could have been created at the same time, about 500 years ago.
Are they national cultural property?
These days, Friede said, he always poses the question.
"At least I ask now," Friede said. "Everyone says, 'No.' "