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All fired up

Stuart Solomon may be the head of a multinational insurance company in Korea, but to members of Munwolhoe, a group of amateur cultural artifacts lovers, he is a specialist when it comes to antique white porcelain and buncheong ware.

"I can discern white porcelain very well, but I'm not so sure about celadons," says Mr. Solomon, 53, chief executive officer of MetLife Insurance in Korea. "White porcelains are very representative of Korea because Koreans are traditionally called 'the white nation.' They were used at palaces for special occasions."

On a recent Sunday morning, about half of Munwolhoe's 15 members have gathered at the Horim Museum in Sillim-dong, a private museum known for its fine collection of ceramics. Mr. Solomon is the only blue-eyed member of the group, but he talks and jokes with his fellows in fluent Korean -- he has lived here for more than 13 years and worked at a Korean bank in the United States for 16 years.

As the group strolls around the museum, members discuss the beauty of ancient pottery relics, porcelains and celadons. Mr. Solomon points to a 15th century buncheongware and says, "This is so fine and well preserved. You know, you can see the course of Korean history by observing and understanding the evolution of ceramics."

Munwolhoe meets every other month at either a museum or a kiln site, or takes a trip to a former excavation site. Members range from their 30s to 50s; most are professionals or artists.

"At year's end, we even hold an auction at a member's house to trade Korean antiquities," says Hong Gi-woong, president of Munwolhoe and an orthopedist by day. The group also has a division of labor, with members specializing in various fields; Dr. Hong for ceramics, in general, painter Jeong Tae-ryeon for miniature paintings, Kim Dae-whan for metalwork, Baek Dong-reul for traditional woodworks and, of course, Mr. Solomon, whose passion is for porcelains.

Later, after a round of the museum tour, the group sits at the coffee shop near the lobby of the museum.

Dr. Hong has brought along a recently purchased stone carving called the "Smile of Silla." But after chatting with a fellow member, Professor Seo Jeong-ho of the Department of Cultural Heritage Conservation Science at Kongju University, he realizes he owns a handsome replica.

The group then talks about a field trip to Turkey next year and about holding an exhibition of the members' private collections sometime soon.

Asked if the members regard Mr. Solomon (or 'Sol sajang,' as they call him) as a bona fide connoisseur of Korean ceramics, three members say in unison that he has a deep love of Korean artifacts. "He has a great eye," notes Kim Dae-hwan, a businessman, "and knows how to precisely choose among the best."

"When we go to kiln sites," Dr. Hong adds, "Solomon is always cleaning broken shards that are littered about, searching for priceless gems while we go for coffee."

Mr. Solomon nods and with a mischievous smile says, "I always think I'll find something special among the heap."

Stuart Solomon grew up mostly in New Jersey before heading for college in upstate New York. At Syracuse, he majored in physiology, but spent most of his academic years demonstrating along with the rest of his generation of socially active students. "I was your typical late-60s and 70s young person, long hair with hippie clothes, taking part in anti-war demonstrations ... I was representative of that turbulent era." It's hard to imagine this looking at Mr. Solomon's clean-cut image today.

In his senior year, Mr. Solomon was drafted into the army. "I had serious moral problems about going to Vietnam to kill others," he says, "as did many of my fellow students." Instead, Mr. Solomon received a draft deferment to join the Peace Corps. As a pre-med student, Mr. Solomon signed up for the Peace Corps' healthcare program.

As part of the 50 or 60 members of what was called the K-19 volunteer group, he arrived in Korea in the fall of 1971. Mr. Solomon and another American man were the only appointees to the health-care program. Their job required them to visit health centers around the country and report on the centers' status -- to study how donated medical equipment from the World Health Organization was being used, the number of tuberculosis patients in a region, that sort of thing -- and develop case study techniques for health programs.

When the other American in the health-care program left for personal reasons in the middle of the tour, Mr. Solomon took charge of monitoring the health centers in Korea alone, while working with the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs.

His work required him to spend half his time outside of Seoul. But when he could live in Seoul, Mr. Solomon resided in a homestay program with a Korean couple and their infant son in Yeonhui-dong.

"In those days, the roads weren't too good after you got past Daejeon, so I was mostly on dirt roads, traveling from town to town." And being one of the very few foreigners in the land, he was at times stunned when village children and townsfolk came up to him just to touch him. "Later I understood it was their way of expressing curiosity, and I became comfortable with the stares."

Mr. Solomon recalls how "some officials in the health centers were very suspicious of me because they were afraid I was spying on their work," he said. "They resented that." But as time went by, Mr. Solomon learned to converse in Korean, which enabled him to befriend many Koreans. "Traveling to remote places in the country also forced me to become fluent in conversational Korean in a short period of time." Not to mention learning how to eat and drink like a Korean.

Fortunately enough, Mr. Solomon enjoyed spicy food and even makgeolli. "I love Korean food!" he exclaims. "Once you get used to Korean food, everything else is insipid."

The Peace Corps experience was a distinctive and defining period in Mr. Solomon's life. "All of my professional work has been linked with Korea and has brought me back. It's quite uncanny if you think about it."

By the time Mr. Solomon finished his volunteer service with the Peace Corps, the draft in the United States had ended. In 1973, he returned to the New York area. By then, he had given up the idea of studying medicine and instead went to work at the Korea Exchange Bank in New York City as a clerk. He was hired in part because he knew some Korean from his days in the Peace Corps and wanted to keep his connections to Korea. In 1975, he was approached by an acquaintance to help set up a trading company specializing in steel and iron casting in Korea. The thought of returning to Korea appealed to him, and for four years, Mr. Solomon worked in Busan, in charge of exporting steel and iron made in the Sasong Industrial Complex to the United States. During his Busan years, he became fluent in Korean and even picked up a Busan accent. "And I was reunited with my old friends in Seoul, as well as with soju, kimchi and makgeolli."

Mr. Solomon returned to New York City and rejoined the Korea Exchange Bank in 1979. What was supposed to be a short-term arrangement turned into 16 years, most of which were spent in charge of the bank's investment portfolios. During his tenure, he visited Korea on business trips and kept in touch with his old drinking pals. In 1995, Mr. Solomon joined MetLife and returned once more to Korea. He has lived here since.

"My colleagues at the bank were happy with the fact that I was returning to Korea," he says. Indeed, Mr. Solomon also welcomed his relocation to Korea because, "I felt comfortable and have confidence in Korea's future. That's what drew me here."

He now heads MetLife Insurance in Korea, a company with more than 2,000 employees. Returning to Korea after such a long interval, Mr. Solomon immediately noticed two things: "How much taller people had grown and how crowded Seoul was."

Coming back to Korea caused him take up a hobby: the appreciation of Korean ceramics. In 1996, Mr. Solomon co-founded Munwolhoe, which he describes as "a group of people interested in learning about Korean ceramics and acknowledging a cultural past."

Why Korean ceramics? "I like them for their simplicity and sense of purity," he says. "I have a very strong affiliation for the earthy and nonornate characteristic of the ceramics." Mr. Solomon also deplores that many good ceramics in Korea are privately owned by Japanese collectors. "During the occupation period, the Japanese had very actively collected good pieces and took them away from Korea." He adds, "I think that's a shame."

Something else the Munwolhoe members can't tolerate are antique dealers who want to join the club in order to gain access to their private collections, however small they may be. "We are a group solely for the love of cultural artifacts," he says.

by Choi Jie-ho

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