Famous art collector holds rare Q&A session

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Famous art collector holds rare Q&A session

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Yun Jang-sub stands next to the celadon he bought in 1971. [YONHAP]


Yun Jang-sub is a Kaesong merchant.

The term refers to merchants or businessmen active in the city of Kaesong, today in North Korea, during the Goryeo and Joseon periods (between the 10th and 20th centuries).

Historically, Kaesong merchants were known for their expertise and wealth. The capital of the Goryeo Dynasty was thought to be one of the culturally richest and most sophisticated regions on the Korean Peninsula.

Born in Kaesong on May 31, 1922, he began collecting art at around 50, buying his first artifact in 1971.

In the late 1960s, Choi Sunu (1916-84), a famous art historian, and some of his colleagues came to Yun’s office of Sungbo Industry in Sogong-dong, central Seoul. They were looking for a new sponsor for the monthly Ancient Art that was struggling financially.

Yun agreed to become a sponsor. Since then, he became well acquainted with Choi and his colleagues and opened his eyes to the world of art collecting.

“Don’t just try to get things cheap,” Yun advised younger art collectors during a rare press conference on Oct. 18.

“If you do that, you will never get to buy a good item. It’s because you won’t be the first one who art brokers will look for when good items become available.”

Officials at the Horim Museum noted this is the first and probably last interview Yun will ever have with media.

Despite his wealth, Yun leads a frugal life, using the subway at the age of 90. But when it comes to rare artifacts, Yun is a big spender.

“If it was a good item, I bought it no matter how expensive it was. And if I couldn’t afford it, I just gave up. I never tried to bargain.”

A blue and white porcelain jar with plum and bamboo designs, now designated as National Treasure No. 222, is a prime example. He said he bought it for 40 million won ($36,250) in 1974. He could have purchased a building in downtown Seoul for that much money at the time.

“I must have been out of my mind,” Yun said with a laugh. “But I couldn’t miss it. I had to get it.”

Yun also cautioned against conceit, saying people shouldn’t think they know a lot about artifacts and history. If they do that, chances are they will trust themselves more than appraisers.

That is why even though Yun has been purchasing artifacts for more than 40 years, he still relies on his advisers before making a final decision.

“In my definition, a good artifact should be authentic and has aesthetic value. And when you put it on display, anybody should like it.”

Asked which of his 15,000 artifacts he feels the most attached to, Yun picked the Saddharmapundarika sutra in ink on white paper, now designated National Treasure No. 211.

“One of my acquaintances from Kaesong, Hwang Su-yeong [1918-2011], told me that I must get it because it was stolen by Japan during the Imjin War [1592-98].” Hwang is a noted historian.

“I feel particularly proud of it because we got back our precious cultural property taken overseas.”

Yun emphasized that cultural properties are not individual assets, saying that is why he donated all the artifacts he bought to the foundation. “I hope they will become public treasure and the future generations will get as much joy from them as I did.”

By Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

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