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All eyes on fate of Kansong Art Museum’s two national treasures


K Auction’s auctioneer starts bidding for National Treasure No. 72 on Jan. 27 at K Auction in Seoul. (K Auction)

K Auction’s auctioneer starts bidding for National Treasure No. 72 on Jan. 27 at K Auction in Seoul. (K Auction)

After the much-anticipated auction of Kansong Art Museum’s two state-designated national treasures last week ended up failing to find bidders, eyes are now on what Korea’s oldest private museum will do with the national treasures.

During the auction held by K Auction on Jan. 27, no one bid for the two national treasures — National Treasure No. 73, Portable Shrine of Gilt-bronze Buddha Triad, and National Treasure No. 72, Gilt-bronze Standing Buddha Triad with Inscription of Gyemi Year. Bidding started at 2.7 billion won ($2.25 million) and 3.1 billion won, respectively.

“Unsold items are supposed to go back to the owners. But we can’t say anything more about the national treasures,” an official from K Auction told The Korea Herald. The auction house declined to comment on whether it is seeking ways to sell the national treasures.

The auction house currently holds the national treasures for the “procedures following the auction,” according Kansong Art Museum. 

National Treasure No. 73, Portable Shrine of Gilt-bronze Buddha Triad (K Auction)

National Treasure No. 73, Portable Shrine of Gilt-bronze Buddha Triad (K Auction)

Established in 1938, Kansong Art Museum is home to some 360 national treasures and treasures. By comparison, the government directly manages a total of 434 national treasures and treasures at the National Museum of Korea and other state entities as of 2020.

A wealthy businessman, Chun Hyung-pil founded the museum to protect invaluable cultural artifacts from being taken out of the country during the Japanese colonial period. The museum is currently run by the founder’s grandson Chun In-keon, the museum director.

“We are trying to unload Buddhist heritage artifacts and focus on calligraphic works and other artifacts that form the main body of our collection,” an official from Kansong Art Museum said.

But perhaps more to the point may be the museum’s need to raise cash. “While inheritance taxes are exempted for state-designated heritage, we have to pay taxes for other artifacts that we have. It is easy for people to say why can’t they maintain the museum as the founder did. But it has never been easy for us, a private museum that does not have enough money,” he added.

Those were the explanations also offered when the museum put up two artifacts for auction in 2020.

The museum made a surprising move in May 2020 when it sought to sell two state-designated treasures, claiming chronic financial difficulties. The auction failed to attract bidders for Treasure No. 284, Gilt-Bronze Standing Buddha, and Treasure No. 285, Gilt-Bronze Standing Bodhisattva.

The treasures were later acquired by the National Museum of Korea in August 2020 in honor of the museum’s founder, who greatly contributed to protecting the country’s heritage.

The National Museum of Korea has not made any move regarding the national treasures, and declined to state its position on the issue. “We are keeping an eye on the situation,” a museum official told The Korea Herald.

The national museum’s annual budget for acquiring artifacts is estimated at 3.97 billion won, which is far short of the 5.8 billion won for the combined price of the two national treasures that were put up on the block.

The National Museum of Korea acquired Kansong Art Museum’s treasures in 2020 at prices lower than the price tags at the auction. The actual purchase prices remain confidential, according to the museum.

Kansong Art Museum is currently undertaking the renovation of Bohwagak, the museum’s main building. It is mulling opening the museum temporarily this year, as soon as the construction of the new storage facility is completed early this year. The museum’s new venue in Daegu is scheduled open by 2024.

By Park Yuna (yunapark@heraldcorp.com)





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