Private collection opens to the public

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Private collection opens to the public

The late chairman and founder of the Samsung Group, Lee Byung-chull, built more than just a business empire. In an attempt to recover the cultural losses inflicted upon the peninsula by war and poverty, he also built one of the greatest private collections of Korean art.

His collection, which he began amassing in the 1940s, includes seven National Treasures and four Treasures. It rivals the collections of Korea's national museums. In 1978, he donated 1,167 items, including 200 antiques and works of modern art, to create Korea's first large, privately owned museum. The Ho-Am Art Museum was named after Mr. Lee's pen name, which means "to remain clear and still like a lake and a rock."

The museum is in Yongin, Gyeonggi province, about an hour's drive from Seoul. It is a re-creation of traditional Korean architecture and gardens.

The museum is now led by Samsung's current chairman Lee Kun-hee and his wife Hong Na-hee, who continue to add to its permanent collection. This year, to commemorate its 21st anniversary in April, the Ho-Am Museum is displaying 160 items that its curators consider to be the essence of Korean art.

"Masterpieces of the Ho-Am Art Museum" features 28 National Treasures and 26 Treasures, covering a vast field of Korean art history, from the early Bronze Age to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). On display are ceramics from the major Korean kingdoms, Buddhist art, paintings and handicrafts.

Among the most impressive works, "Gilded Roof Ornament" from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) bears the image of a ferocious dragon. Due to the details on exaggerated fins, this particular beast is believed to be the god of water, which was used to prevent fire disasters. Its large nose and protruding eyes create a powerful presence. The body of the dragon is hollow and without a back end since it was designed to be attached to a roof.

The first floor of the museum is dedicated to prehistoric artifacts. It includes a bronze sword and bells excavated from ancient tombs, rare earthenware and gold crowns from the Three Kingdoms Period. The gold crown (National Treasure No. 138) from the Gaya Kingdom (?-562) is considered one of the museum's most prized possessions. Also featured on the first floor is a lacquered mirror from the unified Silla Period and Buddhist artifacts from the Goryeo Dynasty and Three Kingdoms Period.

The second floor displays major paintings and celadons dating from the Goryeo Dynasty to the late Joseon Dynasty. The highlight is the painting "Pheasants and Eagles" by the legendary painter Jang Seung-eop (1843-1897). The artist's tormented life was portrayed in last year's movie "Chihwaseon."

The museum's Celadon Room displays some of Korea's best celadons. "Celadon Gourd-shaped Ewer" from the Goryeo Dynasty represents the Goryeo Dynasty's national religion, Buddhism. The ewer has a small sculpture of a pensive youth holding a lotus petal. Its delicate, elaborate details are typical of Goryeo artists.

"Blue and White Porcelain Jar" (National Treasure No. 219) is the most outstanding piece from the early Joseon Dynasty. Blue pigment was used to depict plum blossoms and bamboo in the classic style. The skillful, detailed brushstrokes on the celadon were made as if it were rice paper. The jar is considered an important contribution to Korean painting history.

"Masterpieces of Ho-Am Art Museum" runs until July 31. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Mondays. Audio assistance in English is available. Admission for adults is 3,000 won ($2.50); students, 2,000 won.

To get to the museum (near Everland in Yongin, Gyeonggi province) by public transportation, take bus No. 1500-1, 1500, or 5002 to Suwon Station. From Suwon, take local bus No. 66 or 600 to Everland.

Motorists using the Gyeongbu (Seoul to Busan) Expressway should take the Yeongdong highway at the Singal interchange, proceed to Maesong toll gate and follow the signs for Ho-Am Art Museum.

For more information, call (031) 320-1801 or visit the museum's Web site at

by Ines Cho
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