A public view of a private love

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A public view of a private love

BUCHEON, Gyeonggi
Porcelain is said to have originated in China and was first transported to Europe along the Silk Road in the 13th century by Marco Polo. In the course of four centuries, European porcelain evolved into a brilliant culture, reaching its zenith in the 18th century. Recently, Asians have become avid collectors of Europe’s timeless ceramic artwork. And in Korea, a museum has opened that allows visitors to admire the porcelain of the finest European masters.
The European Porcelain Museum, which opened in May, contains one of the finest collections of antique treasures from that continent. Glassware by Galle, Daum and Baccarat, priceless porcelain by Meissen, Sevres and Royal Worcester, and dinnerware by Royal Copenhagen are just some of the items on display at the gallery.
As one enters the museum, located on the grounds of the Bucheon Sports Complex, radiant light illuminates a spacious room where porcelain is on display in glass cases and shelves. White columns and red carpets create a luxurious setting, although a gigantic vase in gaudy colors and designs at the entrance gives the surroundings a somewhat overdone look.
One of the first gems encountered is a wine goblet with golden filigree used by Napoleon in the early 19th century. This is one of only eight such cups used by Napoleon that exist in the world.
The founder and president of the museum, Bokchun Young-ja, is a Japanese-Korean who has spent four decades collecting European porcelain and has dedicated her precious antiques to this museum. Ms. Bokchun, 59, says that although acquiring a large collection ― nearly 780 items in all ― was never a dream of hers, “one thing led to another and I found myself in possession of this chinaware.”
Several lengthy texts on the walls provide in-depth explanations of such topics as the origin of porcelain, the evolution of ceramics in the world and famous European porcelain makers. A video clip discussing the history and manufacturing of porcelain can be viewed in a small room with 15 seats.
A long row of 15 framed, porcelain painted plates, one-of-a-kind in the world, are on display at one end of the gallery. Hand-painted portrait porcelain by Hutchenreuther of Germany and other works by French and British artisans also adorn this wall. One corner of the museum is dedicated to the splendid porcelain and figurine works by Meissen, considered the greatest bone china maker in the world.
“This is one of my favorites,” says Ms. Bokchun, pointing to an 18th-century Meissen figure of three couples exchanging gifts. The artwork, titled “Group Allegorical of Love,” captures three couples reaffirming their love for one another. “This is absolutely breathtaking in its delicate carvings; this is one of the first things I bought when I began my collection,” she says.
A careful look at some of the treasures inside the glass cases reveals tiny cracks that highlight the objects’ ancient beauty. Vases by Sevres, Bernadeau, Dresden and Limoges are set out on a large table near the small museum shop, which sells replicas as well as Aynsley china.
Having spent most of her childhood in Japan, Ms. Bokchun’s mother was an avid collector of Holland antiques there. “My mother always took me to antique stores and auctions, and while growing up I wasn’t all that thrilled about collecting such items. But once I reached my early 20s, I found myself buying porcelain for some reason or another,” Ms. Bokchun says.
She not only inherited her mother’s hobby, but also acquired a taste in collecting porcelain. Having lived extensively in Japan and the United States, Ms. Bokchun says most of her collection has been purchased through Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in those countries. “The items at Christie’s are verifiable, genuine goods, albeit rather expensive. But the antique porcelains are well worth my money.” Once Ms. Bokchun bid for a set of Royal Copenhagen dinnerware against a man who worked for the Danish ceramics manufacturer. After several bids, the man gave up and Ms. Bokchun won the bid at what she felt was a reasonable price. Later, she says, “I treated the gentleman to dinner to thank him and he told me how impressed he was that a Korean woman would be so passionate about Danish porcelain.”
Only when her family returned to Korea 11 years ago did Ms. Bokchun go about starting a small private museum to display her works. “Of course these items cost a fortune to buy, some pieces even go for a hundred million won ($84,400). But with the inheritance that I got from my parents, and help from my family and relatives, I was able to acquire antique porcelain from all over Europe.”
Ms. Bokchun did not display all of the items she collected. She used them as kitchenware, serving fried rice on a Meissen plate to her two children when they were young. “Both of my kids were never interested in collecting antiques so that made me decide to donate what I have collected over the years. Young people these days are more interested in the practical stuff. They don’t purchase things for aesthetic purposes, but they live frugally and pragmatically,” she says.
There are many ceramic and porcelain museums and factories around the world, but Ms. Bokchun considers one she visited in Germany the most impressive.
“The Meissen factory near Frankfurt is quite grand. Their trade secrets are still unknown to the public but for three centuries they have kept the color and craft alive,” she says. What was more memorable about her visits to porcelain museums around the world, she says, was always seeing large groups of Japanese visitors around.
“I believe real luxury is in admiring exquisite chinaware, not in carrying a luxury handbag,” Ms. Bokchun says. “Because of the influence of Confucianism, arts and culture has not been promoted as much [in Korea]. I think this was quite a shame.”
In 1998, Ms. Bokchun opened a private museum in Pyeongchang-dong, northern Seoul. Her husband coined the name Celamuse, a combination of the words celadon and museum, for the collection’s home. Celamuse also was renowned for its culinary dishes, and businessmen’s wives would often hold luncheons in the museum-cum-restaurant. She closed Celamuse early this year to move her collection into a larger space.
Kim Jai-hwa, a professor emeritus at Sungkonghoe University who was exposed to European porcelain when her husband was ambassador to Austria, says, “The collection here is one of the finest that I have seen.
“Ms. Bokchun is someone who genuinely appreciates porcelain culture. She is not a collector for the sake of acquiring a fortune, but rather she tries to preserve the culture for others to appreciate as well,” Ms. Kim says.
Ms. Bokchun says she has never lost a plate because she has doted over her collection the way one would care for children. Among her possessions is a bowl used by Empress Min of the Joseon Dynasty and a coffee set used by Francesca Rhee, wife of former President Syngman Rhee. She also has celadon and porcelain items from the Goryeo Dynasty, considered among the finest that Korea has produced.
Ms. Bokchun laments the lack of continuity in craftsmanship of Goryeo celadon, and says she wants nothing more than to teach others what she has learned over the years.

by Choi Jie-ho

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