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A mirror to society
By Wang Jie

LAST week Shanghai Museum received the donation of 90 sets of ancient bronze mirrors from Lloyd E Cotsen, an art collector and philanthropist from Los Angeles.

An exhibition entitled "World in Mirror: Selected Bronze Mirrors from Lloyd Cotsen's Donation" is now running at the museum, presenting the distinctive charms of ancient bronzes from China's different periods. Some of the artifacts on display are considered priceless.

"Mr and Mrs Costen once visited the Shanghai Museum during a stay in China and were impressed by its collections. They believe that returning these mirrors to where they came from is the best way to help China protect its cultural heritage," said Chen Xiejun, executive director at Shanghai Museum.

To show its gratitude to collectors who have donated work over the past decades, Shanghai Museum has created a wall in its lobby on which are the names of people who have enriched its collections through donations of Buddhist statues, ancient ink-wash paintings, ceramics and bronzes.

"Since we were established in 1952, almost 1,000 people - from both home and abroad - have donated collections to the museum," said Chen Kelun, vice-director at the museum.

"It's mutual respect, as we also express our gratitude to those donors. I always remember the saying from Zhou Enlai, China's first premier, that people who make generous donations to our museums should be treated well," said Chen.

Expressions of thanks can take many forms. The museum paid medical fees for one collector during a hospital stay and purchased a small apartment in Suzhou, Shanghai's neighoring Jiangsu Province for another donor who wanted to spend her remaining days there.

"We try with our best efforts to help and support collectors when they turn to our museum," Chen said. "This is something they deserve.

"We hope that more Chinese collectors will consider Shanghai Museum on their list for donations," added the vice-director.

New trend of donation

However, of late this may be less likely, as many Chinese entrepreneurs have ambitions to create their own museums to display their collections of artifacts.

In Shanghai, Liu Yiqian, who made his fortune on the stock market, and Indonesian-Chinese entrepreneur Yu Deyao are opening private museums.

"There are many reasons behind this trend," said Zhan Hao, a local art critic. "If you donate a collection to a public museum, you can't guarantee that it will permanently display all your artifacts. Sometimes only a small portion is on show."

Owning a private museum lets collectors display all their works. If the space is big enough, and the collection impressive enough, it can be presented to the public in a comprehensive and focused manner.

"Show-off behavior from the rich classes is nothing new," Zhan said. "During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the trend among rich Chinese families was to have their own personal Peking Opera company, at an annual cost of 200,000 grams of silver."

"During the 1950s and 1960s, people donated their collections to museums as the proletariat dominated society. All kinds of assets were considered to have come from exploiting the people."

"Now, times are different. Luxury goods, including artifacts, have become trendy items. Ostentatious display is one way to differentiate between classes."

"I don't think this will change in the future, only take other forms," added Zhan.

While having your own museum sounds like the ultimate calling card, the costs can be daunting.

In addition to the collection itself, the owner must splash out on rent, salaries, specialist equipment - as works require an environment with strictly controlled temperature and humidity, plus energy costs.

"It is estimated costs will be no less then 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million) annually," Zhan said.

Showcase of taste

"But for some Chinese entrepreneurs, a private museum provides a means to announce to the public that they are not only expert at making money but also have exquisite taste in art and culture, superior to their peers," added the critic.

"In my eyes, this is a perfect way to build up the image of a person or even a company."

However, Zhan also admits that the emergence of private art museums is creating more diversity of the art scene, a sentiment echoed elsewhere.

"I am very interested in the oil paintings created during the so-called 'cultural revolution,' but they seldom appear at auctions," said Wang Yuhong, a local young artist.

"That's why I'm looking forward to the opening of Liu Yiqian's museum next year, as he is noted for buying many such paintings at auctions."

Li Jing, a member of organizing staff at Liu Yiqian's Art Museum, said it is looking to top private art museums in the West for models on running the venture.

Indeed, retaining interest in a private collection over the long term is a major challenge.

"It demands a professional team organizing frequent activities and exhibitions, otherwise the museum will be dead and attract few visitors," Zhan said.

"It also demands passion and support from the descendants of the founder, as there is always the possibility that they could just close the museum and sell the collection."

Such uncertainties can provide an advantage for a public museum seeking donations.

"A public museum is permanently open to the public, attracting more visitors than private museums," Chen Kelun from Shanghai Museum said.

"We also have the best security and equipment and top experts who study artifacts."

"Donors' collections are safe and secure for centuries at the museum," added Chen.

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