A Taiwanese museum that houses some of the world’s most precious Chinese artworks has confirmed that up to 100,000 high-resolution images of paintings and calligraphy leaked online – some of them turning up for sale on a Chinese shopping platform for less than $1.
The National Palace Museum in Taipei said Tuesday it had reached out to Taobao, a shopping website popular in mainland China, to prevent the images from spreading.
“We are looking into it and have hired lawyers to raise to Taobao about the intellectual properties and damages involved,” said deputy museum director Huang Yung-tai.
High-resolution scans are a common way for artists, galleries and museums to monetize artworks in their possession by issuing digital copies, without having to sell the original while catering to a wider, less affluent consumer market.
According to the museum’s website, each scanned image could cost between US$98 and US$850, depending on the resolution.
An examination by CNN found numerous sellers on Taobao advertising “high-resolution digital images” from the museum, with prices ranging from just 20 cents to $1.50.
CNN has reached out to Alibaba, the Chinese conglomerate that owns Taobao, for comment.
In its statement, the National Palace Museum said they first identified the leak in June last year and it launched an investigation into the matter two months later.
The result of that investigation found a staff member who was tasked with shrinking file sizes of scans had transferred some of the artworks from the museum’s server in a bid to expedite the process.
But the private server was hacked, the museum said.
“This rendered it possible for people not related to the museum to fetch the images in part before combining them to get the full version,” the museum explained, adding that the employee received a warning.
It is the second scandal the museum has faced in five months.
In November, its director faced calls to step down after it was revealed to have broken three precious Ming and Qing dynasty artefacts, reportedly worth US$81 million in total.
The National Palace Museum’s collection is a major bone of contention between Taiwan and China.
Many of its best known pieces were taken from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan by the Kuomintang Nationalists as they lost a civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949.
Much of its vast collection of artifacts were once housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City – treasures that have already survived two wars.
China’s Communist Party, which claims democratic Taiwan despite having never ruled it, has longed for the return of the artifacts held in the museum, as well as many priceless antiquities that were looted over the decades by colonial powers.
As tensions between Taipei and Beijing run high, Wu Mi-cha, the museum’s then director, told the CNN last year that he had been training its staff on how to evacuate the island’s most prized relics in the event of war.
CNN’s Riley Zhang and Wayne Chang contributed to this story.