Mystery surrounds the death of saviour of art treasures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 December, 2004, 12:00am

When French President Jacques Chirac was organising his visit to Shanghai in October, he insisted on a meeting with Ma Chengyuan, the founder of the city's museum and a friend of the president, a connoisseur of Asian art.

But the meeting never happened because Ma, 77, died suddenly on September 25. Official newspapers reported the event but gave no cause of death. More than 100 people attended his funeral on October 9, and tributes poured in from home and overseas to a man who saved thousands of art treasures from destruction by the Red Guards and set up the mainland's most modern art museum.

'I called him that morning,' said Zhang Anqi, 72, a school classmate of Ma who worked with him at the museum for seven years until 1984, and then moved to Beijing, where she worked as a senior editor at the People's Publishing Company. 'He was very calm and lucid,' Ms Zhang said. 'He told me to look after myself.'

Friends said that Ma had carefully prepared his departure, having invited his daughter, who lives in Australia, to spend two weeks with him before she returned on September 22. Ma suffered from afflictions of old age - high blood pressure and a weak kidney - but followed to the letter the instructions of his doctor, taking every day the medicine he prescribed and eating a spartan diet of meat, vegetables and soup. He led a disciplined life, doing research at the museum or in his study at home, and was a man of a few words.

Ma was a strong personality and made enemies. His wife, Chen Zhiwu, declined to speak of her husband's last days.

Ms Zhang said that Ma was among the cream of her generation. 'We have lost a genius and a great teacher who loved cultural objects,' she said.

Ma's legacy is the Shanghai Museum, which sits on a prime site on the southern side of People's Square, opposite the city government building, on what was the city's racecourse before the 1949 revolution.

It has a collection of 120,000 precious works of art, including ceramics, painting and calligraphy, and bronzes more than 1,500 years old. It is built in the shape of an ancient Chinese bronze jug, 30 metres high and with a construction area of 39,000 square metres, capable of showing a fraction of its collection. It is one of the most famous tourist spots in Shanghai, attracting millions of domestic and foreign visitors every year.

Without Ma, there would be no museum. Born in Shanghai in 1927, he joined an underground cell of the Communist Party in 1946, and graduated with a history degree from Daxia University, which later became East China Normal University. He joined the Shanghai Museum in 1954 and became a specialist in ancient bronzes.

The communist takeover was a bonanza for the museum. Thousands of foreigners and rich Chinese fled the city, selling their collections for next to nothing. The new government nationalised the art business, making it the sole purchaser.

For a century, as a city of immigrants with no visa requirements, Shanghai had attracted thousands of people from all over China and the world, who brought with them their culture and works of art.

In 1952, the museum was housed in a building that used to belong to the city's Jockey Club. In 1959, it moved to modest premises in Central Plaza, a building formerly used by Du Yuesheng, one of the biggest mafia bosses of Shanghai in the pre-communist period.

Appointed director in 1985, Ma lobbied the city leaders for a larger museum but did not win approval until December 1991, when he was already 64. He won approval for the prime site on People's Square, which the government provided free, although many opposed building a museum there, but the government did not provide any money.

They started construction with the 100 million yuan they raised from selling Central Plaza. Ma travelled the world, raising US$10 million in donations from Hong Kong, the US and Britain, mainly from overseas Chinese. Their names are recorded on the museum's walls.

Given the communist government's poor record of protecting art since 1949, it was not an easy sell. But Ma drew on contacts he had built up over 40 years to persuade donors. The city government also gave tax breaks on the building's raw materials. After three years of construction, the museum opened on October 12, 1996, with 11 galleries and three temporary exhibition halls. With climate-controlled equipment, the latest lighting and display techniques, conservation laboratory and protection against earthquakes, it was the mainland's most modern exhibition facility. The success of the museum made Ma internationally famous. In 1998, Mr Chirac presented him with an award for his services to art and invited him to join him and then-president Jiang Zemin at a private dinner when the two visited France in 1999.

He retired that year and became an adviser. His friends say that he should have been made honorary director and became increasingly bitter because the new management did not consult him, even in making purchases that involved thousands of dollars and needed expert judgment. He was accused of misusing US$250,000 in a foundation given by a Chinese-American collector, but an investigation found that he had distributed the money correctly among his staff.

Ms Zhang said that Ma was an extremely honest man who kept no money for himself but donated it all to the museum. His enthusiasm for art, especially ancient bronzes, did not diminish. In October 2003 he and a colleague embarked on a five-city tour of museums in the US in a single week, to look at bronzes. He wrote more than 80 books and academic papers on the bronzes, including the authoritative encyclopedia in China, in 16 volumes.