Yet another joint government-civic committee is about to be formed to take charge of identifying Korean cultural articles overseas and start working for their return home. President Lee gave the instruction upon the return of Joseon era books last week from France after they were plundered from a royal archive on Ganghwa Island during an attack a century and a half ago.
Like the 296-volume Joseon “Uigwe” or the records of royal events which are to be sent back in four batches from the national library in Paris until the end of next month, some of the Korean cultural objects are kept in official facilities but most are in private collections after leaving the country through varied processes. Many artifacts were taken away by Japanese collectors during the colonial period and others were shipped out in the times of confusion around the Korean War. Some were sold overseas by thieves.
In the case of the collection of the late Gregory Henderson, the former cultural attach in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul personally collected Korean old potteries and paintings while he was serving here during the 1960s. He had claimed he was helped by official Korean curators in the appraisal of the items and their shipment to Hawaii. It was in the early 1970s that Korea began controlling the overseas transfer of old artifacts with the enactment of the Cultural Properties Protection Law.
We trust that members of the projected committee will make good judgments on what to recover from overseas and how to get them back home. But it should be remembered that not all items were taken away by forceful and illegal means and that it would better serve the national interest if some representative articles of Korean cultural heritage remain overseas to be appreciated by international art lovers.
In 1978, UNESCO formed the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation. In an extraordinary session in Seoul on its 30th anniversary, the committee discussed the modalities of requesting return or restitution. Korea’s restitution committee will have to follow the ways and means of negotiations provided by the international panel.
In dealing with private collectors, huge funds will be needed to purchase some items. It may be recommended that some of that public money be used instead to buy more works of contemporary foreign artists to replenish the meager collections of museums here.