Smart strategy to retrieve our relics

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Smart strategy to retrieve our relics


Gregory Henderson (1922-1988) was an American diplomat who served at the U.S. Embassy in Korea right after the Korean War. He was fascinated with Korean relics and collected Korean antiques during his stay here.

When he left Seoul in 1963 after six years, he took with him a collection of Korean relics consisting of over 300 pieces.

Most were porcelain relics from the Gaya and Silla kingdoms, Goryo celadon and Joseon white porcelain.

He kept a work of calligraphy done by Prince Anpyeong of the Joseon Dynasty, a master calligrapher, in his study and a big Goryeo Buddha painting hung above a fireplace in his drawing room.

After his death, his wife donated 150 pieces of Korean porcelain to the Harvard Art Museum.

Opinions on the Henderson collection are divided.

Some believe Henderson was an art lover who saved Korean relics that may have been destroyed during the Korean War. Others believe he used his diplomatic status to take Korean cultural properties and that what he did was no different from an act of theft.

When Henderson took the collection home, the law prohibiting the removal of cultural assets from Korean territory was very loose.

Under the Cultural Properties Protection Law of 1962, cultural assets designated by the government as treasures were often smuggled out of the country.

It is difficult to expect that anything separated from its owner will return on its own. If, however, we are going to reclaim cultural relics that are no longer in our possession, we must be very smart about our approach.

In 2007, the J. Paul Getty Museum in the United States returned 40 artifacts, including a statue of the goddess Venus, to Italy, but only after the Italian government indicted Marion True, the museum’s head curator, on criminal charges of trafficking in stolen antiquities.

Offensives were launched from all directions.

The prosecuting attorney threatened the museum by saying, “We have evidence that we can use to make the museum repository empty.” The Italian culture minister said it would suspend all cultural cooperation with the Getty. The museum had no choice but to surrender.

The Italians did not, however, treat the Getty strictly as a thief. They used a two-pronged approach that attracted international attention. The Italians rewarded the museum for returning the relics by loaning some of the pieces back to the museum on a long-term basis.

The museum, for its part, demonstrated it had learned a lesson when, that same year, they returned a golden wreath requested by Greece.

Korea’s efforts to reclaim from France the ancient books known as “Uigwe: The Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty” have run aground once again.

I wonder whether the Korean government has a clever strategy that will help it gain the support of the international community so that it can retrieve this national treasure.

*The writer is a culture and sports reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Ki Sun-min
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