Korea’s collector of Tibet’s legacy

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Korea’s collector of Tibet’s legacy

It started with a sightseeing trip to Insa-dong. Then it grew into a hobby, visiting art dealers when time permitted. Now it has become a passion, with all his energy and resources devoted to the cause.
This is how Hahn Kwang-ho, 80, has collected nearly 100,000 precious works of art over four decades, including 2,000 thangkas ― Tibetan cloth scrolls with Buddhist images painted on them.
Mr. Hahn, in fact, is one of the world’s premier collectors of thangkas. Part of his collection will be displayed at the British Museum in London from Sept. 11 to Nov. 23, in an exhibition titled “Tibetan Legacy: Paintings from the Hahn Kwang-ho Collection.” It will mark the first time a Korean’s private collection has been showcased at the British Museum.
The exhibition will be held in the museum’s Korean gallery, for which Mr. Hahn contributed 1 million British pounds (1.6 billion won) when its foundation was laid in 1997. His years of generosity to the museum earned Mr. Hahn the title of C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II in April 1999.
“I have a long association with the British Museum, because seeing the miniscule collection of Korean art there many years ago, I was determined to collect artworks and upgrade the Korean collection,” Mr. Hahn says.

A former CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim Korea, the Korean office of a German pharmaceutical company, Mr. Hahn credits his fervor for collecting art to his German colleagues.
"When guests from Europe visited Korea, they always asked to visit Insa-dong, where they could buy antique ceramics and paintings. I started buying this and that along with my foreign colleagues. One thing led to another, and I found myself an art collector," Mr. Hahn says in a jovial, booming voice.
An octogenarian who looks remarkably fit, Mr. Hahn is now president of Hankooksamgong Inc., a Seoul agricultural chemicals company.
He became one of the world’s most prominent collectors of thangkas, in part, because he says he saw a “niche.”
"I wanted to collect art pieces that were unique, that would find no parallel,” he says. “I didn't think I could become a premier collector of Korean artifacts, because Ho-Am, Horim and other large private museums have wonderful collections that are impossible to compete with.”
Fifteen years ago, he befriended a Japanese archaelogist who saw some of Mr. Hahn's thangkas (which were few in number then). The archeologist suggested he collect them in earnest. "This Japanese scholar, who was learned about Tibetan arts and culture, gave me confidence to find my niche in thangkas," says Mr. Hahn.
A thangka is a scroll painted with Buddhist images ― of the Buddha, of bodhisattvas, of female deities and lamas. Mr. Hahn’s paintings are not only difficult to find for political reasons, but are precious historical relics, some dating back to the 13th century.
“Thangkas are truly magnificent,” Mr. Hahn says, pointing to some on display at his office in Pyeongchang-dong. “I'm not a religious man, but the aesthetics of Buddhist artworks really draw me to them.”
But his thangkas have been a source of controversy in the past. Chinese diplomats in Korea had frowned upon his exhibiting the Tibetan artifacts in Korea.
“I do not like getting mired in politics, but the Tibet issue is sensitive, and because thangkas have historic and national significance, there is bound to be some kind of objection,” says Mr. Hahn.
Richard Blurton, a curator in the British Museum’s Department of Asia and the person who planned the thangka exhibition, says Mr. Hahn’s collection “provides an idea of the astonishing breadth of the Tibetan religious vision.” Mr. Blurton and other museum officials came to Korea to select from among Mr. Hahn's 2,000 thangkas, and sent 52 to London just a few days ago.
The British Museum's special exhibition coincides with the Tibetan Academic Conference, which is to be held at Oxford University starting Sept. 5th. “We've been planning the showing of my collection for some time now, almost five years, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the British Museum as well as coincide with the Conference," says Mr. Hahn.
Hahn has traveled all over Europe as well as Hong Kong in pursuit of thangkas, paying as much as $100,000 for some. "My ambition is to acquire the best collection of thangkas in the world," says Mr. Hahn.
At the moment, he at least has one of the top three, according to Park Jeong-Ae, curator of Mr. Hahn’s Hwajeong Museum. “Besides the Hahn Cultural Foundation, the David Rubin Collection of the United States and the Anthological Museum of Stockholm in Sweden are the top three collectors of Tibetan thangkas in the world,” Mr. Park says.

In 1992, Mr. Hahn opened Hwajeong Museum in Itaewon to house some of his collection. Other pieces stored at the museum include fans, medicine bottles from Europe and paintings, ceramics, wooden and decorative industrial arts from China and Korea. Mr. Hahn's pieces ― most of which are Asian ― have frequently been displayed in Japan, and have been on loan at the National Museum of Korea. He hopes to move Hwajeong Museum to a larger space in Pyeongchang-dong.
One of his most successful finds came when he was collecting European fans. “It was in Lisbon, back in 1994, and the art dealer there was telling me this old lady had a fine collection of fans from the orient,” he says. “I was surprised to hear of this and searched her out, an elderly woman in her 80s. At first, she did not want to sell any of her possessions, but I persuaded her for days. It turned out she was the daughter of a former viceroy of Macao, a former colony of Portugal, and from there she had gathered a magnificient load of ancient fans from mainland China. I bought her entire collection.”
Mr. Hahn’s affiliation with the British Museum began when he befriended the former British ambassador to Korea, David Light, who introduced him to museum officials. Over the years, Mr. Hahn's contributions, monetary as well as loans of his Asian artifacts, earned him the status of honorary patron at the museum.
Mr. Hahn says he wants to leave his precious Korean pieces to the museum, but the law forbids the exportation of Korean artworks that are more than a century old.
“It is quite a shame,” Mr. Hahn says. “I believe displaying them enhances our cultural status and our national interests. What good is it to keep our historic relics only in our country? The whole world should be able to admire our heritage. Besides, I think the British Museum does a fine job maintaining the artifacts."
Conversely, he believes Korean museums should be more interested in foreign art. “Museums in Korea ought to collect art that has artistic value, regardless of nationality. People need to stop being so exclusive,” he says.
Mr. Hahn says he doesn’t really consider his collection to be his. “It belongs to the nation,” he says. “I don't want to bequeath them to my children, but rather have these artworks be preserved for eternity for all to appreciate. That's my legacy.”


by Choi Jie-ho

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