The Korea Herald


[Voice] How can Korea recover lost artifacts?

With more than 100,000 pieces scattered around the globe ...

By Korea Herald

Published : June 24, 2013 - 19:55

    • Link copied

Korea’s long cultural history is an often invoked source of pride for its citizens. But such pride often comes tinged with a sense of regret: Much of what the nation identifies as its cultural heritage now rests far beyond its borders.

Like so many countries with a colonial past, Korea lays claim to a vast number of artifacts looted or otherwise removed from the Korean Peninsula throughout its tumultuous history. Almost 140,000 cultural properties were confirmed to be in foreign hands as of 2011, according to the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, with tens of thousands more objects estimated to be still outside of the country. Despite ongoing efforts, the government had only been able to negotiate the return of some 10,000 artifacts as of last year. For many people interested in preserving the country’s cultural heritage, there remains much to do.

“Although it might be politically complicated, the government should put more effort in order to have better results for repatriations and preventing smuggling,” said Lee Hyun-joo, a former museum docent and Korean graduate student of museum studies at the University of Leicester in the U.K. “Because there is still a considerable number of lost Korean artifacts all over the world and sadly this is still happening.” 
The Gwaneum Bosal Buddhist statue, which was recently taken from Japan. (Yonhap News) The Gwaneum Bosal Buddhist statue, which was recently taken from Japan. (Yonhap News)

But the principle of returning objects of historical importance to their place of origin is not necessarily as uncontroversial as it might first appear. No more clearly has this been illustrated than in the ongoing dispute over the Geumdong Gwaneum Bosal Buddhist statue. The statue was stolen from Japan last October by Korean thieves, but Korea suspects it was looted from the country in the 14th century.

To many Koreans, the decision by a Daejeon court not to return the statue to Japan until it could be proven that it had not been originally stolen was obvious: It was nothing more than a piece of the country’s cultural heritage being returned to its rightful place.

Japan, on the other hand, has unsurprisingly demanded the return of what it regards as an intangible cultural property. But while suspicion of theft is one of the main sources of controversy in this case, even proof that an object was acquired by legitimate means can be insufficient to settle the question of ownership.

Does race, language, custom, geography or something else connect a country to a piece of the past? Former director of the Art Institute of Chicago James Cuno has argued that modern civilizations often draw connections to heritage that held little value for their ancestors. He has claimed, for example, that looting by Europeans in Egypt aroused in locals for the first time a sense of ownership of the ancient Egyptian civilization. As Muslims who saw Muhammad as the father of their tradition, they had previously considered pagan traditions completely removed from their culture.

The issue becomes even more complicated for artifacts that were created before the country claiming them even existed. Much of the Goguryeo kingdom, considered by Korean historians to be an indispensable part of the nation’s history, was located in present-day China, for instance.

“I think Korean artifacts are ones made by Koreans,” said Lee from the University of Leicester. “In my opinion, the artifacts, made by Koreans, which are now located in Chinese territory are still Korean artifacts. It might be ‘owned’ by China now, because it was found in the Chinese territory, but it should be stated as a ‘Korean artifact.’ As China wants to classify them as Chinese artifacts, they try to distort history about the ancient Korean kingdom to be Chinese.”

But for some, many in the museum world in particular, culture belongs primarily to humanity rather than any one country. The Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii, the first in the U.S. with a dedicated Korea room, is one of a number of American museums with an extensive Korean collection. It has more than 1,000 pieces, some of which date back to the Three Kingdoms period.

“Since we are happy to lend to Korea and Korean museums lend to our museum, the question of ownership is a bit reductive,” said museum director Stephan Jost. “The reality is Korean museums and American museums hold our collections in the public trust. I think there has been a huge shift in thinking over the last decade with globalization. Many countries want to make sure that great art from their culture is on view at all the major museums in major cities.”

Legally, the transfer of cultural properties is governed by the 1970 UNESCO convention on the illicit transfer of artifacts from their country of origin. The treaty, however, does not apply retrospectively, and so excludes, for example, pieces looted during the Japanese colonial period.

Some, however, believe that the current statute of limitations is too restrictive. Hwang Pyung-woo, the director of the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, which is temporarily in possession of the stolen Buddha, said that it seemed to be powerful countries or those that had looted in the past that insisted on strictly following the time limit set out in the UNESCO convention.

“Currently, there is a statute of limitations on stolen cultural properties. The reference point is when a treaty or pact (agreement) starts,” Hwang said, adding that in his view there should be no set time limit for looted cultural properties.

“Removing the statute of limitations for flagrant crimes is a trend at the moment.”

Jost of Honolulu Museum of Art acknowledged that stolen items should be returned in principle. But he said that defining something as such was extremely complicated.

“How far does one go back? Should the Mona Lisa go back to Italy? The more interesting question to me is that how do we use great works of art to educate people about different cultures as the world becomes more global. How does a kid in Honolulu who is from a Korean family learn about Korean culture after several generations?”

Jost said there were no outstanding claims to any of the museum’s pieces from the Korean government or Korean organizations, nor was he aware of any in the past.

Another American museum with a large Korean collection is the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which acquired much of its collection from Japan in the 19th century. Jane Portal, the Matsutaro Shoriki Chair of the Department of Asian Art, insisted the museum was extremely careful about how it acquired its pieces.

“The MFA Boston is very strict about how it acquires anything these days and we abide by the 1970s UNESCO convention ruling, so (for) anything exported from the country of origin after the 1970s we have to have legal export documentation and import documentation,” said Portal. “And our collection was acquired very early so we have very few questions about that.”

Portal said that the museum endeavored to document the origin and nature of acquisition of all pieces not covered by the UNESCO convention. But she pointed out that it was normal for museums everywhere to possess pieces originating from different countries.

“So as far as I am concerned I think it’s a good thing that we have, for example, Korean art here at the MFA and that it’s not all in Korea,” she said. “American art is collected by other countries, European art is collected by other countries. And I feel art belongs to the whole world.”

By John Power (

Intern reporter Sun Hye-min contributed to this report ― Ed.

Readers’ voice

Substitute holidays …

I felt it necessary to respond to Mr. Wood ― who took it upon himself to make personal attacks rather than positively contribute to the discussion on “substitute holidays.”

I was never making any sort of comparison to the second amendment and an American’s right to possess a firearm. In fact, Mr. Wood has willfully ignored that I was referring to public polling data which suggests a greater than 90 percent majority support in both cases (background checks in the U.S. and substitute holidays in Korea). This is polling data that has been diligently reported on by both Korean news outlets and that of American news outlets such as CNN which found that closer to 95 percent support background checks on those wanting to purchase firearms. Claim substantiated. Not so “outlandish.”


The broader point I was trying to make was in regards to the business of policymaking which, in both Korea and America, has marginalized public sentiment in favor of the interests of big business and fringe groups with big money. We have seen two purported democracies take on the face of oligarchies ― something that should trouble citizens of both countries that entrust their elected officials to act dutifully.

As an American (born and raised), it’s rather disappointing seeing a fellow American having to resort to personal attacks to strengthen their argument. This uninformed ignoramus assumed that just because my last name was “Hong” that I used Word to check my grammar and that perhaps in being Korean that I would lack knowledge on the issues in America. This sort of rhetoric does nothing to strengthen one’s argument, nor does it do much more than make one look blissfully ignorant.

In fact, had Mr. Wood done his due diligence in researching the facts ― he would not be setting himself to look like one of “those” Americans that half the world bemoans. You can dispute my argument that our democracies are in fact oligarchies. But you cannot refute public polling data that shows a majority opinion hovering around 90 percent and that, objectively, our elected officials have sided with big business and special interests in both cases.

― Andrew Hong, Seoul

Returning artifacts …

No, not at all, (Korea does not have a claim to artifacts removed hundreds of years ago) even though it would be wonderful to have all of those precious artifacts back to their rightful owner; it is not something that should be demanded or even given back. Artifacts stolen or won as spoils of war are part of their history as much the country they were taken from. It serves as a reminder that times were gruesome, unfair and ruled by those who were strong and ruthless. Today is not yesterday and maybe we will become more civilized and in the future rules might change, but we should not forget what happened in history.

― Jonte Hee Soo A, Suwon, via Facebook