Going once? Going twice? Going back into storage...
When the turn of the highlight piece of an auction approaches the atmosphere begins to tingle.
All eyes become busy trying to identify the potential buyer, and if the item is of a high profile, even media flock in with cameras to see who’ll make the headline for calling the highest bid.
The case was no different for two series of auctions that recently took place at the K Auction in southern Seoul.
In fact, the auctions generated more interest than usual as reporters and industry insiders eager to see the results first hand, crowded into the auction house on both May 27 and July 15.
That’s because the highlight pieces that were up for auction on those days were official treasures of the country that have long been cherished and handed down from generation to generation by the legendary collector Jeon Hyeong-pil’s (1906-62) family.
Gilt-bronze Standing Budda (Treasure No. 284) of the Unified Silla period (935) and Gilt-bronze Standing Bodhisattva (Treasure No. 285) of the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668) were up for auction as the final items on May 27 while the Haeak palgyeong and Songyu palhyeongdo (Album of Eight Scenic Views of Seas and Mountains and Eight Confucian Scholars of the Song Dynasty) by the renowned landscape painter of the Joseon Dynasty, Gyeomjae Jeong Seon (1676-1759) was the final highlight item for the auction on July 15.
The starting price for the Buddhist art pieces was 1.5 billion won ($12 million) each and Jeong Seon’s painting began at 5 billion won. Since they were the final items on both events, attendees patiently waited for about two hours that was also packed with an avalanche of media.
However, no bids were made on either occasions. After just a couple of minutes the auctions were over and all the anticipation that had built up quickly dissipated.
But why were these valuable treasures of the country up for auction in the first place?
The family behind the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation, which was founded by late collector Jeon, who's pen name was Kansong, in 1938, decided to put the treasures up for auction for the first time, much to the shock of the public, after revealing that they were facing financial difficulties.
According to the foundation, ever since the death of Jeon, the foundation has been having trouble paying the massive inheritance tax levied on Jeon’s family and the situation has only worsened with the passing of Jeon’s first son, Jeon Seong-woo in 2018, who took over the foundation after his father.
Although state-designated national treasures and treasures are exempt from the inheritance tax, the Kansong foundation possesses about 5,000 cultural artifacts among many of which are not registered as national treasures.
The foundation said the decision came after “much contemplation” but was ultimately inevitable to “cope with the financial situation.”
Then why didn’t anyone bid on the treasures?
According to the Cultural Heritage Protection Act, it’s not illegal for individuals to buy or sell state-designated treasures under a few conditions: The trade should be recorded and registered with the government and the treasure should not be taken outside the country.
When the word spread before the first auction of the Kansong items in May, many industry insiders raised concerns that the treasures should not end up in the hands of an individual collector and that state-run institutions like the National Museum of Korea should find a solution to acquire them because if they are bought by an individual it becomes difficult to properly preserve the items, not to mention allow the public to view them or researchers to conduct studies.
Bae Ki-dong, director of the National Museum of Korea recently told the JoongAng Ilbo that he also believes that the “treasures should be housed inside a state-run facility so that the public can enjoy them easily and that’s what Jeon Hyeong-pil would’ve wanted.”
However, for the National Museum of Korea, which only has 4 billion won in annual budget to purchase artifacts, the treasures were just too pricey. There were reports that the museum attempted to purchase the treasures through private dealers, however, the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation allegedly rejected the offers as the treasures were already contracted to be sold through K Auction.
Moreover, museum officials hinted that the museum already has a number of standing Buddha and Bodhisattva statues that are similar to the ones on sale so there was no real reason for the museum to use its budget to purchase the treasures, adding that it usually focuses spending on bringing back cultural artifacts that have been taken outside the country.
Cultural heritage experts maintain that the wash-out at the auction came as no surprise.
“If the National Museum of Korea doesn’t make a bid, it is obvious that the treasures will end up back in Kansong’s storage,” said one cultural heritage expert who requested to stay anonymous. “The fact Kansong Art and Culture Foundation putting state-designated treasures up for auction made headlines, put so much spotlight on the event. Other private galleries or facilities or even individuals would’ve felt pressured in terms of receiving such spotlight to even make a bid.”
Another expert also commented on such pressure, citing that if the treasures were to be sold the buyer would be recorded and registered with the government, revealing the purchaser’s identity. “It’s Kansong’s first case of selling its collection, let alone the items being state-designated treasures. Plus, the reason for selling is also not a good one. Everyone ought to be hesitant to make the first move.”
Some also argue that the starting prices were too high and mentioned that there's been a decline in the antique art market for quite some time.
“The Buddhist statues are not rare ones that museums would want to buy,” said Choi Eung-chon, Art History Professor at Dongguk University. “It’s the same for the painting. Gyeomjae Jeong Seon painted until he was 80 years old, therefore he’s known to have produced a lot of works. There are so many other paintings of Jeong Seon that are of higher quality so I personally think the starting price of 5 billion won is a little too high. Most of the museums and galleries already have Jeong Seon’s paintings in their collection that I don’t think they’ll purchase the painting for 5 billion won.”
The antique artwork that set a record for fetching the highest bid in Korea is Jeong Seon’s Buddhist Hanging Painting of Cheongnyangsan Mountain, which was sold at Seoul Auction in 2015 for 3.52 billion won. The painting is also state-designated treasure No. 1210.
Before that was a scrapbook carrying Jeong Seon’s painting of Gyesangjeonggeodo, depicting a landscape of a private Confucian academy run by Ri Hwang, a prominent Confucian scholar of the Joseon Dynasty. The painting also features the handwriting of Ri Hwang and Song Si-yeol, another Confucian scholar and statesman of the era. The scrapbook, which is also state-designated treasure No. 585, was sold for 3.4 billion won at K Auction in 2012.
It seems like the heyday for antique art in Korea has passed as art auction houses are now crowded with with bidders interested in modern works by artists like Kim Whanki, Park Soo-keun, and Lee Jung-seob.
However, Lee Won-bok, former head of the art department of the National Museum of Korea says that “the price of Korea’s antique art is somewhat undervalued.”
“Gyeomjae Jeong Seon’s Album of Eight Scenic Views of Seas and Mountains and Eight Confucian Scholars of the Song Dynasty is not overpriced because it is difficult to find a treasure where 16 paintings are all intact and well preserved to form one album,” Lee added. “I hope this failure in bidding doesn’t underestimate the value of cultural artifacts of Korea because the trade failed for different reasons, because of its value.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]