Artifacts’ illegal excavation probed

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Artifacts’ illegal excavation probed

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A police officer inspects a seized antiquity yesterday at a police station in Mapo District, western Seoul. Police are investigating four people they suspect of illegally excavating and selling cultural assets. [NEWS1]

The police said yesterday that they are investigating three people, including the head of a government-subsidized nonprofit organization aimed at protecting cultural assets, alleged to have illegally excavated and sold buried antiquities.

They added that they are also investigating the chief monk at a temple in North Gyeongsang for buying those cultural properties from the suspects.

According to the authorities, the 57-year-old nonprofit head, surnamed Jang, allegedly looked for cultural antiquities with tracking equipment in the city of Gumi and Chilgok County, North Gyeongsang, for seven years from September 2003 in fields designated by the local government as protected and containing cultural heritage. He is also accused of selling the 233 pottery items and earthenware that he found.

Jang is known as a cultural heritage enthusiast in Gumi, and founded his own cultural asset protection organization in 2005.

He reportedly registered the organization with the provincial government in 2008, receiving a total of 53.2 million won ($50,253) in subsidies over five years. Jang is suspected to have used his wide base of knowledge to find and uncover buried artifacts in fields that used to be ancient kiln sites.

The 233 cultural assets he allegedly dug up illegally supposedly include an array of cultural assets, including a dish with a chrysanthemum design that was marked by the government of the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Jang even displayed some of the treasures in his private museum, established in 2009, but eventually sold the entire 233-artifact collection to a 50-year-old chief monk, identified only by his surname Kwon, in November 2011 after having financial difficulties.

The police are currently questioning Kwon over whether he knew the antiquities in question from Jang were illegally excavated.

Police are also investigating another suspect, a 61-year-old day laborer surnamed Park, who is suspected of selling a stone statue of a seated Medicine Buddha - believed to be a 4 billion won artifact made during the Unified Silla Kingdom (668-935) - and a piece of white porcelain pottery to Kwon in 2003 for 2 million won.

Park apparently discovered the statue buried in a construction site. The statue was partially damaged when excavated, though Kwon is alleged to have marred it further, entrusting its restoration to unqualified personnel, the police said.

In 2011, Kwon is also reported to have bought a long-necked jar from a third person who found the item in a construction field in Busan. The police said the jar is believed to be a piece of pottery made during the Gaya confederacy, an allied kingdom of several nations around the Nakdong River that came to an end in the sixth century.

The police have seized all cultural assets in question and said that they will expand the crackdown. By law, anyone who finds an artifact they suspect could be a cultural asset must report that find to the local government.

BY KIM BONG-MOON AND MIN KYUNG-WON [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]


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