48 artifact smugglers caught in police probe

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48 artifact smugglers caught in police probe

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Police confiscated a Buddhist painting, left, created in the late Joseon Dynasty, and a law book, right, from China’s Ming Dynasty. [POLICE]

Police announced Tuesday that they caught 48 artifact smugglers as part of their four-month long investigation, recovering some 4,500 cultural artifacts including national heritage items like an initial copy of the Dongui Bogam, an ancient text that its highly regarded in traditional Korean medicine.

Among the smugglers, 12 possessed or hid stolen cultural artifacts, four damaged them, three stole artifacts, and at least two, who are museum directors, bought stolen artifacts, while another traded a forgery.

One of the culprits used to be a head monk at Anjeong Temple in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang, who stole artifacts as an act of vengeance against the monks there after they had a legal scuffle. The monk refused to follow the decision by the body of monks, which recommended another monk to head the temple instead of him. The court ruled against the monk and he in turn stole from the temple.

Last month, the Dunsan Police Precinct of Daejeon arrested the monk, a 60-year-old man surnamed Kim, and handed him over to prosecutors under charges of violating the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. At Kim’s greenhouse, where he hid stolen artifacts, police found 635 cultural artifacts, including Geumsongpae, a type of license granted to forest rangers by the king during the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.-A.D. 935).

In concluding their four-month investigation into stolen cultural artifacts, police announced Tuesday that they recovered 4,542 objects, including Daming Lu, China’s code of law from the Ming Dynasty and its national heritage item, a Gilt-Bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha, a cultural heritage item of South Chungcheong and an initial copy of the Dongui Bogam.

“Korea has been missing 82.7 percent of its cultural artifacts since 1985,” said Song Won-yeong, chief of the public crime investigation bureau of national police. “Police tried their best to recover as many as possible.”

The Cultural Heritage Administration said early this year that since 1985, there have been over 700 reports of stolen cultural artifacts.

One of the artifacts recovered recently had been missing for 27 years. The newly recovered Gilt-Bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha used to belong to a five-story stone pagoda of Muryang Temple in Buyeo County, South Chungcheong.

It was first discovered during repair work on the pagoda in 1971, but was stolen in 1989 by a thief who entered the temple, threatened the monks and ran off with the artifact.

By the time police caught the culprit down that year, the artifact had already been sold. Police tracked it down this year after receiving tips that it lay inside a museum storage room.

“Even if people are caught for holding onto stolen cultural artifacts, they refuse to hand them over to authorities, saying they didn’t know it was a stolen good,” said Nam Jeong-woo, inspector of Dunsan Police Precinct. “But this time, police were able to negotiate with the museum director.”

On the other hand, another museum director who knowingly held onto a stolen cultural artifact was caught by authorities. The man is a 74-year-old director surnamed Kwon, who bought 15 cultural artifacts that were stolen from Okcheon Temple in Goseong County, South Gyeongsang, between 1991 and 1999, including the Painting of the Bodhisattvas of the Three Worlds. He paid 15 million won ($12,970) for them, knowing they were stolen artifacts.

“We found out about the lost Painting of the Bodhisattvas of the Three World during our investigations,” said Gong Pyeong-jin, sergeant at Gwangjin Police Precinct in eastern Seoul. “Using our records and maps, we tracked down the artifact at Kwon’s museum.”

And top national heritage items were among those recovered, including an initial publication of Dongui Bogam, a medical encyclopedia published by court physician Heo Jun of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and China’s Daming Lu.

“Many cultural artifacts are smuggled abroad once they are stolen,” said a police officer. “Which is why we need to recover them as soon as possible.”

BY PARK MIN-JE [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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