Looted art: Private owners get little help from SeoulLee Seok-gyu had hoped that his suspicions would not be confirmed. For years, he had been searching for items stolen from his ancestors’ graves, which were destroyed and lost during a turbulent time in Korea.
He knew through historical references that many of his ancestors were buried in Kaesong, an old capital of Korea, only a few kilometers from the house of his clan, the Incheon Lees.
Until recently, though, that was all he knew. Then last year, a curator at a national museum found him and said that when she was a visiting researcher in Japan, she had seen one of his family heirlooms, the granite tombstone of Lee Gong-su (1308-1366), his direct ancestor and a government minister during the Goryeo Dynasty. The stone was stored in an annex of the engineering department at the University of Tokyo, she said.
For years, the Korean government has tried to recover its looted antiquities. Historians surmise that over 75,000 Korean artifacts are currently in the possession of museums and institutions outside of Korea, excluding those in the hands of private collectors. Experts also say that a substantial number of them are likely to have been spirited out of Korea through improper channels.
Yet while the government has readily taken official steps to recover national treasures, Korea’s clans and families have been left to fend for themselves. Some manage to recover their heirlooms, but many ― such as the Lee clan ― at best can only go overseas to get a glimpse of what belongs to them.
According to a recent report by Unesco, up to 46 percent of all Korean artifacts and art held by museums or art institutes are in Japan. The United States, with 23 percent of the artifacts, ranks second among foreign holders; Britain, where 11 percent of such artifacts are located, is ranked third.
The rest are dispersed throughout Europe and Asia: in Germany (8 percent), Russia (4 percent), France (2 percent), Denmark (2 percent) and China (1.4 percent).
In Mr. Lee’s case, the object is more than just a heavy old stone belonging to his clan. Engraved on the tombstone, he says, are all the names of his clan members up to the Goryeo Dynasty, including notable scholars and governors. But until recently, he could only guess who might have taken it and where it was.
The Lee family thinks the most likely theory is that the tombstone was carried off by the Japanese during their invasion of Korea in 1597 in order to research the pedigree of the Incheon Lee, which ruled over the Goryeo Dynasty for nearly 160 years.
“It’s a very meaningful treasure for us,” he says. “It’s also a critical document for our family, which we had been missing for years. It’s exasperating [not to be able to reclaim it].”
Some citizens have stopped waiting for official channels to help. The civic group Coalition of Citizens for Restitution of Cultural Relics was set up in 2002 by residents in Jecheon, South Chungcheong province.
The group has petitioned the Japanese government to force the owners of artwork and heirlooms to relinquish the objects. Most of the time, the petitions are ignored. Recently, however, Buddhist groups and civic organizations convinced the University of Tokyo to hand over to Seoul National University 47 volumes of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, which had been taken to Japan during the colonial period (1905-1945).
Yet when it comes to private assets lost by families or individuals, little has been done to recover them, mainly because the works that are lost are judged to have no historical value, and the complexity of international patrimony laws leads many families to give up their claims.
More importantly, most families lack evidence to back their claims on their heirlooms.
For example, Lee Jong-ha claims his ancestors’ graves had been substantially restored after large holes were found in the middle of the tombs several decades ago. He says he was told by now-deceased family members that the articles inside the family tombs were missing ― almost nothing was left inside. Yet Mr. Lee has no evidence to back his claim that his family graves had been plundered. Japan has partially admitted to having dug into graves in Korea, but says it was done only for research purposes during colonial rule.
Sometimes, the family simply buys its heirlooms back, if it has the chance. Lee Jong-won, the head of the Gwangju Lee clan, recovered an ancestor’s travelogue of Russia, which was written during the turn of the century. The book was allegedly looted by a foreigner, but was taken back to Korea and found on sale at an antiques shop in Insa-dong.
He paid 17 million won ($17,800) for the book, he said, but claims it would have cost a third of that if it had not been taken out of Korea, increasing its value.
Without institutional support or a great deal of luck, many families find it impossible to present evidence about, or even see, their inherited properties that were stolen by outsiders during foreign occupations.
They find themselves faced off against public museums, universities or major art institutions around the world. Legal threats seem to bounce harmlessly off the institutions, and most museums are loath to reveal their collections, particularly to the families that may be the rightful owners.
“We know from past experience that getting museums to participate in any kind of restitution project is an extremely difficult task, even on an institutional level,” said Park Dae-nam, a senior researcher at the Cultural Heritage Administration. “We’ve done large surveys in the past, in which we sent letters to major museums around the world about their collections of Korean artifacts. We got some responses from a few museums in the United States and Europe, mostly because it’s a good opportunity for them to conduct an academic evaluation of their overseas collections, since they often lack historical insight into their materials. With others, like Japan, it’s been very difficult. They’re very cautious about revealing their collections. It’s not impossible, but it takes a great deal of effort for individuals to get museums to participate for the family’s needs unless you have a human network.”
Indeed, the family members of Lee Seok-gyu aren’t particularly fond of Japan, especially after one of the clan members went to the museum last year to document the names on the tombstone for the revision of their family tree.
The university, Mr. Lee says, bluntly refused to show the work, explaining it was part of the school’s collections behind the shelf.
Yet if the Japanese had stolen the tombstone that belonged to Mr. Lee’s family four decades ago just to investigate the royal pedigree, there is no reason why they wouldn’t return it to the family today, since it apparently has little commercial or historic value, unlike other looted national antiquities. But the Japanese university, according to Mr. Lee, has been extremely reluctant to share information about its possessions.
Only after Lee Man-yeol, a director of the National Institute of Korean History and a member of the clan, conducted a formal visit to the museum last year ― using his title as a member of Korea-Japan History Research Committee ― did the university reluctantly approve a brief inspection of the tombstone, Lee Seok-gyu said.
During the visit, Lee Man-yeol was given just enough time to take a few photos and record the names from the tombstone.
The trip was still worthwhile, the family says. The clan found that there had been a number of critical errors and missing facts in their family tree. Yet some of the names had been left out, because part of the inscriptions on the tombstone were severely degraded. Though it has not been carefully inspected by an expert at home, the text could be easily restored, the family believes.
The revised text of the family tree was put together into a new book last year. But the visit to Japan was an uncomfortable encounter with the people who possessed the family’s stolen property.
“It was strictly a mechanical process,” Lee Man-yeol said about the visit. “It was not an occasion to discuss the distribution route or ask questions as to whether there were possibilities for the artifacts’ return to the family at all. Even the procedure to even see the work was so difficult that we dared not ask about other future plans for the tombstone. It’s a necessary procedure for us to at least find out just exactly how it got there.”
In a telephone interview with a JoongAng Ilbo reporter, an official at the University of Tokyo first admitted to the school’s possession of the tombstone. A month later, however, Fujii Keisuke, a research professor of architecture within the Engineering Department, responded that he “couldn’t find the tombstone.”
“The item we’ve assisted Lee Man-yeol with was something else,” he said.
The Cultural Heritage Administration is slowly beginning to press for the return of looted national works. The institution recently established a department to collaborate with major museums around the world to draw an accurate picture of who took what, and where.
For private art and heirlooms, however, it could be years, even decades, before the government has the will and the resources to assist in their recovery.
“It’s a subject we haven’t dared to look into yet,” said Ms. Park, a researcher of the Administration. “We just can’t afford to look into the subject. There’s still a long way to settle the issue of national treasures.”
Other countries have been more active in reclaiming their treasures on both national and individual levels.
France has consistently demanded that the German government return an original music score by a French composer, which had been found in Nuremberg. The efforts paid off in 1992, when the German government handed over the score to the composer’s widow.
Recently, the Dutch government also agreed to return paintings seized by the Nazis to the heirs of a Dutch Jewish dealer who fled to Amsterdam ahead of the German invasion. They were given to the widow of the heir’s son earlier this year, after eight years of pressure.
In Korea, a few cases on the issue of looted art have given a shot in the arm to clan members.
Recently, an enormous collection of art owned by the late Japanese governor general during the colonial regime, which had been preserved in the general’s private library, was donated to a Korean university. The items were shown to the public in a recent exhibit at the calligraphy museum in the Seoul Arts Center.
“We wouldn’t be surprised to find our family art looted and scattered all over the museums in the United States, Mongolia and China by now,” said Lee Seok-gyu. “It must be somewhere.”
by Park Soo-mee