Probe zeroes in on illegal cultural asset preservation

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Probe zeroes in on illegal cultural asset preservation

Authorities have discovered that recovery and preservation work on hundreds of national treasures have been managed by unregistered technicians or often passed down to subcontractors, rather than being handled by certified experts.

The Gwangjin Police Precinct, eastern Seoul, said it is investigating four people for illegally managing cultural assets, including a museum restoration worker.

The police added that they are also looking into 18 other people for various offenses.

Among the four is a 53-year-old cultural property preservation professor, surnamed Park, one of the top experts in the field.

Having served as an expert at the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), she participated in last year’s general inspection of Sungnyemun, or national treasure No. 1, the old Seoul city gate that was burned to the ground in February 2008 and restored in May 2013.

Park established her own cultural preservation lab in 1994 in Seoul and has so far participated in the recovery of 239 cultural properties that are considered national treasures.

Over the past two decades, she earned 1.38 billion won ($1.35 million) in profit, though her work is technically considered illegal because she never registered her business with the proper authorities.

Park also was a contractor on a 300-million-won restoration order in 2011 for the Seungjeongwon Ilgi, the daily records of the Royal Secretariat of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), designated as national treasure No. 303.

However, she reportedly stayed in the Unites States for about two months during the six-month project, leaving the work to her researchers instead.

By law, businesses specializing in cultural asset restoration must register with the local government, have at least three technicians and possess capital of 50 million won or more. Technicians who receive the contract must also work independently.

Another suspect in the investigation, only identified as Cha, 58, is a conservator at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in charge of the museum’s cultural properties. According to the police, Cha has operated an unregistered cultural asset restoration business with his brother since 2011 and primarily worked on the preservation and restoration of Buddhist paintings in temples.

The men apparently earned 280 million won by joining bids for those types of projects and taking subcontracting orders from other businesses in the same field.

But critics have pointed out that giving cultural property maintenance orders to illegal operators has already become something of a precedent in the industry, particularly considering that the CHA and some local governments have done the same.

“When the law was revised in 2010, the clause regarding punishments on institutes that gave cultural asset maintenance orders to unregistered businesses was taken out,” said an officer at the precinct.

The removal of the cause makes it unlikely that the CHA or local governments will be penalized.


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