1,200 plundered artifacts recovered

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1,200 plundered artifacts recovered

An antique dealer ratted out his friends, leading to the arrests Monday of three antique shop owners for selling valuable stolen artifacts, and of one Chinese classics professor for buying them.

The story began in 2005, when a group of 16 thieves stole 4,000 cultural artifacts such as books, scrolls and folding screens used in the royal court, from more than 100 historical sites over a two year period. The thieves sold the stolen treasures to antique dealers before being arrested in July 2007.

After the thieves were behind bars, police questioned antique dealers, and some revealed names of their customers or where the stolen artifacts ended up, leading to the recovery of 1,900 artifacts.

But others refused, including a dealer surnamed Kim, and because of his lack of cooperation with the police, Kim was detained and imprisoned for two and a half years.

“Other cultural artifact traders who were arrested cooperated with the police in the investigation,” said a source at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency. “If Kim had also revealed information about who he sold the stolen artifacts to, he would not have been detained.”

Last March, Kim visited the policeman who investigated him in 2007 and said he had had a change of heart.

“I will tell you all the names of the people who bought stolen cultural properties from me,” Kim told the policeman. “I protected their identities then, but they betrayed me and didn’t even visit me once when I was in prison.”

With the information Kim provided, the police recovered 1,200 stolen cultural items in April, including books written by Sukjong, the 19th king in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), books from the Sejong period, and other scrolls and folding screens.

Police could also catch three antique shop owners who allegedly sold the goods, and a professor of Chinese classics at a university in Asan, South Chungcheong province, who was a customer of Kim. The professor allegedly told Kim, “As I am only a collector of old books, I am not going to resell any of them. So I’m fine even if they are stolen.” He allegedly purchased 900 books from Kim for around 12 million won ($10,158.3).

The police also discovered a Web site called “Kobay,” the biggest cultural property auction Web site in Korea, on which many of the stolen artifacts were traded. Kobay was operating without a license, and the police booked its owner for running a business without one.

“Those who deal with cultural artifacts are very tightly connected, so it’s difficult to get information,” said the police. “A feeling of betrayal was the key in this investigation.”

By Jeong Seon-eon [enational@joongang.co.kr]
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