Up against the wall

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Up against the wall

Last December, an announcement for a curious art exhibition appeared in a daily newspaper in Suwon, a city to the south of Seoul. The advertisement said that some 20 previously unintroduced works by deceased Korean masters would be hung the following week in the Suwon art museum. Included in the show were pieces by blue-chip painters such as Park Su-geun, Lee In-sung and Na Hye-seok. Minor pieces by these names typically fetch a couple hundred million won ($160,000) in local auction houses.

Questions arose immediately: Why would such an important show be held at a museum in Suwon? Could it be a plan by the organizers to serve up barbecued ribs, for which Suwon is famous, at the show's opening? And why would the artworks only be displayed for a week?

At any rate, Suwon wasn't a likely locale for a blockbuster show like this. If the organizers were up to something devious, they should have known such an exhibition would attract the eyes of curators at big corporate museums and even the national museums.

The news spread fast, and soon reached the families of the artists in the show, who had not heard of the exhibition. The families, who were convinced that the works were forgeries, got together and held a rally in front of the museum to demand that the show be canceled. They were joined by art critics and art professors, who agreed that most of the works were fakes done by professional forgers working for underground art dealers in Korea.

It was later found that none of the works in the exhibition had gone through a proper appraisal procedure through the Korean Galleries Association -- the only local institution authorized to give appraisals to art dealers and private collectors.

The donor of the works, identified only as "Mr. Kim," rejected the appraisal process, insiders said, claiming that he couldn't trust the association's appraisal standards. It was an unusual case; all artworks in Korea, especially those by deceased masters that are being introduced to the public for the first time, normally go to the appraiser to verify authenticity.

After plenty of twists and turns, the show closed down the day it was supposed to kick off. The scandal not only sullied the Suwon museum's reputation, but it was also an embarrassment for the municipal government, which was sponsoring it. But art critics who had watched the turmoil weren't surprised.

Evidently, dealers aren't particularly scrupulous when they are confident the works are genuine. "Usually, when dealers are certain the work comes from the artist's families or a person close to them, we don't bother with the official screening by the KGA," said an art dealer of the Growrich Gallery in central Seoul.

The senior appraiser at the association, Kwon Sang-neung, says that the appraisal issue is one of the most delicate in the Korean art world now, and that many gallery owners are reluctant to talk about it. "The history of professional art dealing in Korea is less than 30 years old," he said. "Controversies are inevitable."

In 1991, Mr. Kwon was on the jury of the appraisal association when "Mein-do" -- the painting by the renowned artist Chun Gyeong-ja then held by the National Museum of Contemporary Art -- was caught up in a forgery dispute led by the artist. Ms. Chun argued that the painting then held by the museum's director, Oh Gwang-su, was not the original, which she had sold to a friend in the late '70s.

"No mothers have trouble recognizing their own offspring, no matter how many they may have given birth to," Ms. Chun said at the time. The museum responded that it was possible for a parent to not recognize their children if they've been apart for 20 years. The painting went to the association for a careful screening, after which the jury ruled that the painting was authentic. The work was included in a national tour put on by the museum. Enraged, Ms. Chun left for the United States.

Mr. Kwon explained that the art market tries to ward off controversy: "The market is a business that responds very sensitively to currents. Once it starts on a downslide, it's uncontrollable, and recoveries always come late. That's why you see galleries become 'hush hush' when problems occur between dealers and clients." And it's even tougher to determine the authenticity of artworks when the artists are dead.

Traditionally, the notion of fine art in Korea was associated with sacred rituals. What was artistic in the history of Western art was often spiritual. Such sentiments remain even in the muddled world of contemporary fine art dealing, so that purity is something expected by artists and people dealing with art. But as the local art market has grown sharply over the past 20 years, forgers have cropped up who specialize in duplicating works by old masters. Some of the forgers specialize in a single style or a particular artist.

Alarmingly, the Korean Galleries Association says that almost 30 percent of artwork by Koreans on sale in local commercial galleries are forgeries. The percentage is based on data collected by the association during the past 20 years. The association says that some 30 professional forgers are currently involved in duplicating valuable paintings, some of whom actually served apprenticeships under the artists whose works they are forging.

But Mr. Kwon says it's not too hard to spot a fake: "Usually you can tell if it's original or forged work at the first look. The forged technique is somehow immature. The strokes lack confidence and depth. And often the painting seems too contrived."

Though more and more commercial galleries offer clients official certificates guaranteeing a work's authenticity, or at least encourage their clients to take the works to an appraiser, forgeries are still rampant among the galleries outside of Seoul that don't have access to professional appraisers -- which is one of the reasons many forgers distribute their works through dealers in regions outside of the capital.

Perhaps it's a matter of conscience, which every student who has taken Fine Art 101 should have learned: Art cannot be regarded like other commodities.

"It's unfortunate that people can't look ahead," said Mr. Kwon. "Even if you sell a painting for 10,000 won, that work you sold on the street 10 years ago will still be in the hands of someone. It might still be hung on their dining room wall and be looked at by guests who visit their house. It will not disappear. People dealing with art should treat it with some more dignity."

by Park Soo-mee

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