American’s quest for traditional Korean art

By Lee Woo-young

Robert Moore’s collection to be auctioned at Christie’s next month

  • Published : Feb 23, 2014 - 19:25
  • Updated : Feb 23, 2014 - 19:25
Robert Moore’s collection of Korean art has expanded the presence of Korean art overseas, where it was long overshadowed by Chinese and Japanese art. Major museums in the U.S. boosted their holdings of Korean traditional art and artifacts by purchasing part of Moore’s collection. In 1999, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art purchased 250 works of Korean art from Moore, the largest purchase made by an art museum at that time.

The beginning of his Korean art collection dates back to the mid-1950s right after the Korean War. Moore, now 84, became interested in Korean art when he was in Korea as a U.S. soldier in 1955.

“Because I was in the service, I didn’t have much time (to collect). But the time I spent in the country stimulated my interest in Korean art,” said Moore at a gallery in Seoul. Parts of his collection were on display as a preview of an auction at Christie’s in New York on March 18.

Art collector Robert Moore poses in front of a 10-panel screen of the 19th century at a preview of his collection that will be put up for auction on March 18 at Christie’s in New York, Tuesday. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Moore’s visit to Korea last week was the fourth time since he left the country after completing his service at the end of the Korean War. He was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1959 and then married a Korean-American woman in Los Angeles.

His first Korean artifact was a bronze spoon he bought for $15 in 1957. Since then, he has bought, sold and traded nearly 700 pieces. His collection spans vastly different time periods and ranges from everyday objects, celadons, porcelains, paintings, sculptures and furniture to jewelry.

The March auction marks the third time that the collector has put his cherished items up for sale. The first auction was in 1986, also at Christie’s.

A total of 130 pieces will be offered at Christie’s sale of “The Ten Signs of Long Life: The Robert Moore Collection of Korean Art.” Estimated prices of highlighted items range from $60,000 to $150,000.

The sources of Moore’s collection vary, but most pieces came from old missionary families or retired diplomats who were stationed in Korea. Moore said he bought a 19th-century reverse-painted ox horn-applied accessory box that was on display at an auction preview in Santa Barbara, California, four years ago.

“Korean things were scattered all over the world (after World War II). ... I bought stuff from missionaries,” Moore said. “There was a time after World War II that you could buy a truck load of Korean materials every day. You could buy pottery at 50 cents right after the war.”

He said his favorite pieces were those dating back to the Joseon Dynasty. Most of the pieces on preview were from that period, including a white porcelain jar portraying the 10 signs of long life and a 10-panel screen painting depicting battle scenes with archaistic seals.

Moore’s dream of building his own museum never came true. But if he had to give his collection to someone, he said it would be Los Angeles.

“It has the biggest Korean community outside Korea,” he said. “I’ve already have a collection at LACMA. I got credit for it, so it is like almost having your own museum. You don’t have to worry about it.”

By Lee Woo-young (wylee@heraldcorp.com)