[EDITORIALS]Culture ministry must actMasterpieces by Joseon era painter Gyeomjae were returned from Germany in October of last year. The news of the arrival of the 21 drawings quenched some of the discomfort Koreans feel from serial irritating news.
There is more meaning to this as the returned pictures include jingyeongsansuhwa or landscapes of mountains and rivers, and other national treasure class artifacts that show his skills.
Foremost, we appreciate the efforts of Catholic father Seon Ji-hun from the Order of Saint Benedictine Waegwan Abbey, who played a conclusive role in getting the pieces back. Father Seon, who spent seven years at Saint Ottillien Abbey in Germany where Gyeomjae’s works were kept, sometimes persuaded and sometimes pressured for the return of the art. A person like Father Seon who works in the shadows for his country is a true patriot.
Gratitude is also due to the Saint Ottillien Abbey for returning the artifacts without conditions other than asking they be preserved safely. Sotherby’s and Christies, both famous for their art auctions, offered high prices for Gyeomjae’s works, but the abbey put value in returning the art home. This is a model decision of religious ethics.
The return of Gyeomjae’s pictures is a good milestone for other artifacts illegally taken from the country.
The recent donation of artifacts by Chusa, a late Joseon dynasty calligrapher, by the Fujitsuka family; the return of 47 books of the Joseonwangjosillok, the official history book of the Joseon dynasty, by the University of Tokyo; and the return of a note appraising General Kim Si-min were all made possible through efforts of private people, not the government. We have witnessed again by this return the fact how important the private sector’s role is.
Moreover, this could be an example for the return of the Oegyujangak books from France. Considering the difficulties in negotiation between the governments, having the private sector lead and the government support those efforts would be a solution to break through the deadlock. A permanent lease such as in the German case might also work.
Attention should not only be paid to having cultural assets returned, but to preserving them safely. Who is to be in charge of keeping the books returned by the University of Tokyo has not yet been decided. Gyeomjae’s pictures are currently stored in a university warehouse. It is time for the culture ministry to act.