China recovers lost marbles in Norway museum deal

BEIJING (AFP) - Seven white marble columns from a Chinese palace looted by foreign forces will soon be returned to Beijing by a Norwegian museum after a controversial property developer offered it a major donation, reports said on Wednesday.

The invasion and colonisation of parts of China during the 19th century are still regularly highlighted by Communist authorities and remain enduring issues in the country, symbolised most emotively by historical treasures Beijing says were looted when British and French forces ransacked sites such as the Old Summer Palace and the Forbidden City.

The columns are among 21 in the KODE Art Museums of Bergen, which houses one of the most extensive Chinese art collections in Europe. They were part of Beijing's Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, built in European style in the 18th century.

They will be returned to Peking University later this year and alumnus Huang Nubo, a real estate developer, will donate 10 million Norwegian krone (S$2 million) to the museum, according to the China Daily newspaper.

Huang, chairman of the Zhongkun Investment Group, made headlines last year when he made an unsuccessful bid to buy 300 square kilometres of land in Iceland to build a golf resort.

The move was met with suspicion by some Icelandic politicians who questioned whether it might be part of a geopolitical power play by China.

His latest action comes even as China-Norway relations remain frozen following the Norwegian Nobel Committee's awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

In an interview with the China Daily, Huang described his donation to the Norwegian museum as "a very meaningful action that shows patriotism, as well as a way of repaying back the mother country, which made me rich".

The columns are among some 2,500 Chinese art objects donated to the museum by Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe, a Norwegian adventurer and cavalry officer who lived in China from 1886 - long after the palace's destruction - until his death in 1935.

During his nearly 50 years in China, Munthe enlisted in the Chinese army in the first Sino-Japanese war and became a close friend of Yuan Shikai, the Chinese president who made a short-lived bid to proclaim himself emperor.

It is not known how Munthe acquired the columns.

Their return comes as China is stepping up its efforts to re-acquire its lost relics.

During a December visit to Beijing, British Prime Minister David Cameron came under pressure from Chinese Internet users who asked for the return of some 23,000 artefacts in the British Museum that were "illegally plundered" by British troops.

That came after French billionaire Francois Pinault, the owner of Christie's, last June gave back to China two bronze animal heads looted from the Old Summer Palace in 1860.

Months later, Christie's became the first international auction house to receive a licence to operate in mainland China.

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