S’pore family donating relic to Yunnan museum

A Singapore family is donating a rare 800-year-old item from China's ancient Dali Kingdom to the Yunnan Provincial Museum.

The Woon Brothers Foundation's gift of a silver cylindrical-shaped reliquary for keeping sutras dates from the Buddhist kingdom which existed in present-day Yunnan province between 937 and 1253. It will be presented to the museum in Kunming at a ceremony tomorrow.

This is the first gift to a Chinese museum by the foundation, set up in 2007 by four brothers to promote art education, collecting and to help the needy.

The sons of a Hainanese chef and confectioner, three of them - Tek Seng, 66, Wee Phong, 61, and Wee Hao, 60 - own the Killiney chain of coffeeshops.

Youngest brother Wee Teng, 57, is a retired lawyer and avid collector of art and antiquities and founded Singapore's first Buddhist museum, Nei Xue Tang, in 2005.

Three of the brothers left for Kunming yesterday.

Mr Woon Wee Teng said he acquired the reliquary from a collector in Europe several years ago.

He declined to reveal how much he paid, but said a gilt-bronze.

Acuoye Guanyin statute from the Dali Kingdom was sold for more than US$4 million at a Christie's auction in New York in 2011.

He said the reliquary is the only piece from the period found so far.

"The reliquary, which can be broken up in seven parts, is rare because of the finely inscribed series of Buddhist figures including the Acuoye Guanyin on the surface," he added.

A researcher at the museum, Mr Chen Hao, 44, told The Sunday Times over the telephone: "It is a rare gift and it will be useful for our research. It is also our first gift from an overseas donor."

Mr Woon said he and his brothers decided to give the item to the museum because "it came from Yunnan and so we thought it should go back there".

He said the family foundation has donated to museums elsewhere, aside from various projects it is involved with.

Asked what it was doing in Singapore, he said: "We have written to the Asian Civilisations Museum indicating our interest to donate works to them and are waiting for their response." wengkam@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on August 3, 2014.
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