Art Lovers Are Korean Patriots

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Art Lovers Are Korean Patriots

A permanent gallery exclusively dedicated to Korean art opened at the British Museum in London last week. It showcases works of fine art and beautiful artifacts that give vivid evidence of the splendid cultural accomplishments of the Korean people. Covering more than 390 square meters of floor space, the gallery even includes an installation of a traditional scholar''s study called a sarangbang, which portrays the beauty of Korea''s traditional architecture and the lives of Korean scholars.

Before the opening of galleries dedicated to Korean art in major museums around the world, this country''s magnificent cultural works used to be stuck in dark corners of corridors while China and Japan had their art on grand display.

Korea came to have its galleries in many parts of the world thanks to the work of the Korea Foundation, whose project on behalf of Korean art deserves praise as a monumental milestone in the history of the nation''s cultural diplomacy.

A Korean Gallery has already opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and another will soon open in Paris at the Guimet - the National Mu-seum of Asian Arts, which is part of the Louvre. These galleries highlight the beauty and distinct qualities of Korean culture.

But few of us know the story of the benefactor behind this major step forward in promoting Korean culture. The original collection of Korean art at the British Museum had not been outstanding. To remedy this and do justice to the nation''s ancient and glorious cultural accomplishments, the Korea Foundation Gallery sought to supplement the museum''s holdings. But someone had to make a generous donation to finance the necessary acquisitions.

Han Kwang-ho, chairman of Boehringer Ingelheim Korea, gave ? million (1.61 billion won or $1.42 million), to the British Museum as a special purchase fund to acquire new works of Korean art. Mr. Han is a noted lover of art who runs the Hanbit Cultural Foundation and the Hwajung Museum. He is a passionate art collector, and this passion prompted him to donate the money.

There have been many such art lovers in Korea in the past including Park Byong-rae, Lee Hong-gun, Lee Yang-sun, Hyun Soo-myong and many others. All of them donated their lifetime collections to the state.

A late-15th-century white ce-ladon with a string design attracted great interest when it was portrayed on the poster for the exhibition of Chosun Dynasty masterpieces that was put on in Sydney during the Olympics.

The celadon, designated as Treasure No. 1060, had been donated to the National Museum of Korea by Suh Jae-sik, the former chairman of Korea Plastics Co. Such a generous act embodies the noble spirit of art lovers.

But for some strange reason, Koreans tend to look askance at art lovers and collectors. They think of art collectors as people who have more money than they know what to do with and therefore spend it foolishly on antiques. Or the art lovers are regarded as speculators who just want to increase their wealth or tax-dodgers using art as a cover to conceal their assets.

A bill was submitted to the National Assembly some time ago that would put a composite income tax on works of art. The bill appears to be the result of this negative perception of art collectors. It basically aims to prevent floating capital from flowing into the art market after circulating through the real estate and stock markets.

But money alone is not sufficient to be a good art collector. Besides having money, a collector must have a love of art and be a connoisseur. Those values come first. Money comes last.

The rich without a discerning eye for art are apt to end up buying the wrong things - fraudulent or second-rate pieces. People who are tricked into buying bogus art should blame themselves for not knowing enough about art.

In a way, the risk of buying fraudulent art objects helps control the flow of floating capital into the art market, which apparently is what the government had in mind when it introduced the bill.

A close look at the proposed law reveals many flaws. Even if it is enacted, it will be difficult to enforce. No matter how expensive a piece of art may be, there is no way to tax the transaction if it is not reported, registered or traded legally.

In the end, only honest and genuine art lovers are likely to be regarded as potential criminals, forcing them to hide their collections for fear of investigation by the tax authorities.

In that case, collections in the hands of private individuals would not be made available for exhibitions, and, as a result, the public would eventually lose the opportunity to see and appreciate these masterpieces. The result would be tragic. Great works of art from our cultural heritage would be buried.

Korean art would not exist if it were not for art lovers in our society. This is why art collectors and connoisseurs are respected as patrons of culture in advanced countries. For example, a certain American widow is held in high esteem simply because she owns Van Gogh''s "Sunflower."

There are various ways of contributing to the preservation of the nation''s cultural heritage. One of them is having a love of art. An art lover is also a patriot who enriches culture.

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