[VIEWPOINT]Let’s reacquire our treasures sensibly

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[VIEWPOINT]Let’s reacquire our treasures sensibly

General Kim Si-min’s Gongsin Gyoseo has finally returned to Korea. It is a document praising the accomplishments of the general, who died defending Jinju Castle from the Japanese army in 1592. The document is a treasure-grade cultural property which could have been sold at an auction in Japan. It is the first time a Korean cultural property taken abroad has been retrieved with a fund created by civic donations.
Not long ago, the archives of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, which had been deposited at Mount Odae, were returned to Korea.
The copies of the Annals were moved to Japan during the colonial period, and the ones that were returned survived a fire during the Great Kanto Earthquake.
While there was a controversy over whether Japan returned them or donated them, it does not matter. The point is that a national treasure-grade cultural property has come back to Korea. The Annals will be on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea. I hope many visitors will enjoy the treasure.
When it comes to national treasures taken abroad, we cannot forget to mention the royal texts of the Oegyujanggak collection, which the Korean government has been obstinately urging the French government to return for the last 14 years. Recently, there have been news reports that the French government agreed to exhibit the collection in Korea. It sounds very odd. Why is the French government holding an exhibition of Korean treasures in Korea?
Nevertheless, the exhibition will be worth visiting. Have you ever seen the royal books complied for the king’s viewing? They are truly splendid, with beautiful silk binding, colorful illustrations and handsome type. A diplomat who has been involved in the negotiations to secure the return of the collection said the books were so gorgeous that he came to detest the French even more. French soldiers who looted the collection had no idea the contents of the books they picked up were so ornate and beautiful.
However, we should not get angry without understanding the other side. France is not an easy country to fight against. So far, France has returned foreign cultural properties on four occasions. Each time, it has acquired other cultural assets in return.
The deal is not limited to foreign treasures. In 1989, Pablo Picasso’s “Pierrette’s Wedding” was sold at a Paris auction house for $51.6 million to a foreign company. However, the French government did not agree to let the painting be carried out of the country. In the end, the buyer was only allowed to take the painting after donating another Picasso worth $12 million to France.
France is not the only country keeping foreign treasures. A while ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned Italian antiquities. However, they did not give back the treasures for free. The return came about after the Italian government’s decades-long investigation to secure evidence of grave robbery and its all-out preparation to take legal action. In return, Rome had to offer other antique artworks as a long-term loan. That is the reality.
As we all know, if museums returned all the foreign treasures from the countries of their origins, they would become nearly empty.
Then what can we do?
First, let’s take a look at the British Museum. The Korean Foundation Gallery at the British Museum has the “Full-Moon Jar” on display. When internationally acclaimed pottery artist Bernard Leach purchased the white Joseon porcelain jar, he said, “I am going home with happiness in my arms.” The museum bought the jar back with 1 million pounds that Hanbit Cultural Foundation director Han Gwang-ho had donated.
Why did Mr. Han donate such a large sum? He must have felt frustrated at the meager collection in the Korean gallery.
The Guimet Museum in Paris holds a large collection of Asian art. However, the Korean gallery is rather scanty.
While the donation from Samsung Electronics has improved the collection, the Korean gallery is far humbler than the Cambodian or Vietnamese gallery, not to mention those of China and Japan.
Painter Lee U-fan wished to donate about 100 Korean folk paintings, which he had collected all his life.
Paris is one of the world’s most visited cities for tourists, and people line up to visit the Guimet Museum. If the Oegyujanggak books are exhibited in a museum like Guimet Museum, it would be a great chance to publicize the superb archival culture of Korea to the world.
There are opinions that the controversy over the Oegyujanggak collection could be settled in a way that Korea gets ownership but France gets to have a long-term loan to recognize its essential ownership. I would dare to call that a realistic option. We can attach a condition that the books must be on display in France. We are living in the era of cultural marketing, when countries purposely loan cultural properties to publicize themselves. We should continue to collect evidence, just as Italy did, and we can demand the return when we are ready.
There is no need to rush. Even if we retrieved them in exchange for some other cultural properties, they might end up in the Gyujanggak warehouse, just like Hyikyungwon-Wonsodogam-Uigwe, the only volume from the Oegyujanggak that former French president Francois Mitterrand returned. Have you ever seen that book?

* The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team. Translated by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hoon-beom
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