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'It's Lovely, Really ... What Is It?'

Art at the UN

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Norway already knew how it felt to be picked apart. Consider all the snipes over its whaling. But this was too much.

The Norwegians had generously swathed the room of the United Nations Security Council, stretching fine wool and other materials over the walls and chairs. The gift had been well received by the UN.

Alas, visitors liked it too.

"The tourists were breaking off pieces of the wall covering and taking them home as souvenirs," says Svein Andreassen, minister for economic and social affairs for the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN. "We had to find people specializing in straw coverings to come here in 1992 and fix it."

The UN's member-states drive the world body's dcor. Collectively, they are as prolific as Martha Stewart - if with more varying tastes. Even with 3 million square feet of space, the UN can't display all 221 national gifts.

Receiving them can take diplomacy. What to do with a 20,000-pound stone head, given by Honduras? Or a stuffed coelacanth (see-LAH-canth), a rare fish offered by the Comoros Islands? Both have made their way to the UN basement, for now.

States are urged to give works that represent their culture, are original, and small enough to be displayed. Militarism and nationalism are discouraged. But there are many surprises, and some donors are both sensitive and persistent.

"The hardest thing to decide is where something is placed," says Alvaro De Soto, head of the UN Arts Committee and the UN's de facto curator. "There is lots of competition for space, and it can get quite political, as you can imagine," says Mr. De Soto. "We consult with whoever gives the gift about placement, but some ambassadors are more fussy than others."

Fussiness sometimes has more to do with politics than pride. During the reign of the shah of Iran, a painting hung in the UN that included flags emblazoned with symbols particular to the shah. But after the 1979 revolution, the new government decided they wanted to paint over the former regime's symbols.

The artist learned of the plan and refused. So in a rare occurrence of interference, the UN took the painting down, gave it back to the artist, and the new Iranian government bequeathed a new gift: a reproduction of the Edict of Cyrus, the oldest known human rights declaration, dating from 539 BC.

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