The Jolika Collection: Valued at US$ 90 Million but Priceless to PNG

How many of you have ever heard of the Jolika Collection?

I’ve been following the Jolika Collection for a number of years now because it personifies an issue vital to the identity and the unity of the nation of Papua New Guinea – it concerns our national cultural property. In a way the Jolika Collection is not just about PNG – it is PNG.

For those of you who don’t know what the Jolika Collection is, it is a collection of over 400 masterpieces of Papua New Guinea art that is the centerpiece of the De Young Museum in San Francisco. This large and encyclopedic collection of rare objects with tremendous provenance is currently one of the finest collections anywhere in the world rivaling the great museums of Europe and Australia and was donated by Marcia and John Friede (pronounced FREE-dee) of New York.

The 401 masterpieces that the De Young Museum holds is only a portion of the 4000-piece Friede collection of tribal New Guinea art that is undoubtedly the best of its kind in private hands – and which was promised by John and Marcia Friede as a gift to the museum.

That promise is in doubt now because of a family feud and many wonder whether the collection will remain intact because of a feud between Mr. Friede, 70, and his two brothers over their mother’s estate. The argument has led to litigation in three states, with the two brothers, the museum and Sotheby’s auction house all laying claim to the art.

And why wouldn’t they be arguing over the 4000-piece Jolika Collection? The 401 works currently on display at the de Young alone have been insured for US$90 million (K230 million).

The threat of the Jolika Collection being broken up prompted Evan Paki, PNG Ambassador to the United States, to send the following letter to the Director of the de Young Museum.

Here is the text of the letter from Ambassador Paki:

John E. Buchanan, Jr.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA 94118-4501

Re: Lawsuits Threatening to Seize (and Sell) the Jolika Collection

Dear Director Buchanan:

On behalf of the people and government of Papua New Guinea (New Guinea), I write to express our deep concerns in relation to the multiple lawsuits in San Francisco, Florida and New York which threaten to break up the prized Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art in the de Young Museum. We are profoundly disturbed by the legal claims against John Friede by his two brothers – Robert Friede and Thomas Jaffe – which, if successful, could result in a seizure or break-up and sale of the much-admired masterpieces in the Jolika Collection, which have been graciously donated (and some pieces pledged to be donated) to your museum by John and Marcia Friede.

While I am not, nor anyone from New Guinea is, qualified to comment on – nor has any direct interest in – the intrinsic merits (or lack thereof) of the underlying claims against John Friede by his two brothers, we, as a nation, are nevertheless profoundly disturbed and troubled by these claims aimed at seizing or selling off the Jolika Collection or part thereof. It is our firm view that the entire collection should, under all circumstances, be legally protected so that the New Guinea masterpieces remain at the de Young Museum, consistent with the donative intent and terms agreed to by John and Marcia Friede.

The following additional considerations are also noteworthy in this respect:

We sincerely hope that, as reasonable and prudent people, all the parties (and their lawyers) involved in the current lawsuits would consider seriously the fact that my nation’s efforts to promote New Guinea art and culture within the United States has not only been made possible but greatly enhanced by the presence of the Jolika Collection in your unique museum. In point of fact, in connection with their treasured collection, John and Marcia Friede have personally funded the Jolika Fellows Program at the de Young, which has enabled ‘Fellows’ from New Guinea – young artists, museum administrators, art lecturers and others who would not be able to travel to the United States under any other circumstance – have been able to travel here and learn more about not just the rare Jolika Collection but also your museum’s other amazing collections as well as some Fellows have also toured other American art museums and educational establishments beyond San Francisco; in the process, my compatriots have gained valuable insights into the workings and administration of America’s art museums and other cultural institutions, and colleges and universities in the United States.

Simply stated, John and Marcia Friede have been New Guinea’s ‘cultural ambassadors’ for over 40 years; it has not just been their rare Jolika Collection; it has also been their amazing publications about that Collection that have won major global art awards; the couple has, in our judgment, done more than any other American couple known to us to build up and enhance the cultural and educational ties between the people of the United States and New Guinea – and they are pivotally placed to contribute more towards this worthy and noble endeavor, if allowed to do so, through the Jolika Collection and the related cultural/educational programs they have supported (and will continue to support) though the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and other organizations.

Should the U.S. courts render decisions that permit the seizure or dismantling (and sale) of the Jolika Collection or any part thereof, the couple’s philanthropic efforts to promote New Guinea art and education as well as generally advance relations between the people of New Guinea and the United States in terms of enhancing cultural and educational ties would be seriously imperiled, if not abruptly terminated; and the American public as well as the people of New Guinea would not benefit from that likely unsavory outcome – except, of course, John Friede’s two brothers, whose lawyers have admitted that their clients’ motive for the legal complaint against Mr. Friede has been money “Just like in any commercial transaction” (The New York Times, October 6, 2008).

The Jolika Collection has been – and will continue to be – immensely valuable to showcasing New Guinea’s traditional masterpieces as well as helping to develop New Guinea’s artistic talents through the Jolika Fellows Program. The Jolika Collection also represents the preservation of rare masterpieces, along with our rich cultural history, that would be in danger of disappearing without the decades-long tireless efforts and passion of John and Marcia Friede.

Through the entire Jolika Collection at the de Young, my nation has a rich storehouse of New Guinea cultural knowledge and history here in the United States. The New Guinea art pieces and treasured cultural objects are an integral part of our storied cultural history; and the Jolika Collection represents a valuable contribution in this respect. While the people of New Guinea no longer possess the masterpieces in the Jolika Collection, we have come to appreciate the entire Jolika Collection as an extension of our nation’s cultural treasures – even if the pieces have been secured from private hands around the world through the tireless efforts of John and Marcia Friede. The Collection will no doubt continue to be valuable to New Guinean and American artists, anthropologists, art historians, and researchers, as well as contemporary practitioners in the art community.

Finally, one thing is clear: we, the people of New Guinea, do not take issue with the underlying substantive claim nor do we have any direct stake in it – which any reasonable person would consider to be essentially a private inheritance dispute between siblings (whether or not the claims are legitimate). But what we take issue with – and profoundly object to – is the effort to dismantle or seize (and sell off) the treasured Jolika Collection – a course of action that is, by all accounts, an anathema to the overriding and compelling interest to preserve and protect it and promote the ongoing arts and educational programs and cultural relations between the peoples of the United States and New Guinea.

In view of the above-mentioned compelling considerations, for any American court to allow the two claimants to seize or sell off this prized cultural possession – the Jolika Collection – would be a travesty that we hope will be avoided and prevented at all costs.

Evan J. Paki


To read the Post-Courier’s article concerning the Jolika Collection click here.

~ by Tavurvur on October 21, 2008.

5 Responses to “The Jolika Collection: Valued at US$ 90 Million but Priceless to PNG”

  1. We are watching with concern how the current legal case between John Friede and his two brothers will affect the ownership and or dispositional control over the Jolika Collection that has been given to the De Young Museum.

    There are pieces within the Jolika Collection which are actually DECLARED OR PROCLAIMED cultural property of PNG which have been gazetted under the terms of the National Cultural Property and Preservation Act enforced by the PNG National Museum. These pieces were stolen from Papua New Guinea and then sold to John Friede for some considerable sums of money and have now become part of the Jolika Collection.

    The Director and the Board of Trustees of the PNG National Museum along with the Minister of Culture and Tourism in PNG have not done anything to address the legal issues surrounding the acquistion of these proclaimed cultural property since the issue was first brough up in 2006. The issue was raised with them but it was received an attitude of indifference.

    The PNG Ambassador to the USA, Evan Paki, sucked in and licked the shoes of John Friede. The Ambassador presided over this issue as if he knows anything about legalities nor the complexities of managing PNGs cultural heritage. I was in touch with the Curator of the De Young Museum who has personal responsibility over these artefacts. I raised the issue with the Board of Trustees and the Director of the PNG National Museum but nothing came out out of this.

    What has happened instead is that De Young Museum has been bringing in people from PNG on a resident fellowship program to do all kinds of things with respect to the “arts and cultural heritage of PNG”. The legal and moral issues surrounding the theft, sale and acquisition of the pieces of proclaimed cultural property has been pushed under the carpet.

  2. Andrew,

    Is that why in his letter, Ambassador Paki carefully stressed and re-stressed that the “the people of New Guinea, do not take issue with the underlying substantive claim nor do we have any direct stake in it”? – Because there is grounds for the people of PNG to claim back those stolen pieces that were declared to be national cultural property of PNG.

    Would you know how exactly how many pieces within the Jolika Collection were originally the national cultural property of PNG – and then stolen?

    Honestly, when I read your comment, my stomach turned inside out. It felt more than gut-wrenching – a mixture between having somebody stick a wrench into your gut and the feeling of almost vomiting.

    It is utterly disgraceful.

    The PNG Government should be doing everything in its power to get back those pieces. Shame, shame, shame.


  3. Some of the pieces are gazetted items which have been declared by law (NCPP Act) as the property of the Independent State of PNG. A technical officer from the Department of Anthropology at the PNG National Museum visited the De Young Museum and made a report of what he saw. His report and recommendations were made known to the Director of the PNG National Museum.

    I was his boss then as the Chief Anthropologist at the Museum in Moresby.When I was interviewed for the Director’s job at the Museum, I took the opportunity during the interview to raise this concern with an authority no less than the Board of Trustees who interviewed me. I did realise that most of the Board Members were recently appointed and did not know much about the cultural sector in PNG much less the significance of the issue of the stolen treasures. Their failure was the lack of interest to know more about it.

    My fear is that if the pieces get out of the Jolika Collection, we might not have any trace of them any more. I had several suggestions to work into a legal arrangement with John Friede and De Young Museum. The first was to make John Friede acknowledge that he bought a stolen pieces of PNGs national treasures; and secondly was to make John Friede reveal to the PNG Government who was the thief who stole the pieces from PNG. I found out latter on from reliable sources the identity of that person who had spent some years working in PNG before returning to Australia where he is now located. Since the PNG National Museum was in no financial position to repurchase the pieces from John Friede, I wanted to insist that by acknowledging that the pieces were stolen from PNG provided a moral ground to enter into a legal arrangement where the pieces could be on a permanent loan to the De Young Museum in California. In that we way we can say that this are still PNGs cultural treasures. No senior authority in PNG listened to me and the issue was not pushed anyfurther since. I left them Museum in frustration of the way of PNGs politics was creeping into the Museum. Since then I do not what is the status of these stolen artefacts apart from the Post Courier article that came out recently.

  4. Andrew,

    I just came across an article in the San Francisco Gate that had some photos of the Jolika Collection. I’m not too sure if you have come across it so I decided to post it up here just in case you haven’t yet:

  5. So what’s the latest with this?

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