Rare Goryeo lacquer art returns home

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 15, 2014 - 20:51
  • Updated : Jul 15, 2014 - 21:13
One of the finest pieces representing the lacquerware art of the Goryeo dynasty has returned to Korea, thanks to tireless efforts by a private group to retrieve it from overseas.

The lacquered sutra box, presumed to date back to the middle or last periods of the Goryeo dynasty (918―1392), is one of nine such artifacts known to exist in the world. Korea held none until the retrieval.

In May, the Friends of National Museum of Korea, a private group supporting the state-run National Museum of Korea, purchased the relic from a Japanese collector and donated it to the museum.

“The lacquered chests are masterpieces of art, made to store sacred Buddhist texts during the Goryeo dynasty,” Kim Young-na, president of the National Museum of Korea, said during a ceremony to mark the donation at the museum Tuesday.
Kim Young-na (second from left), president of the National Museum of Korea, and senior members of the Friends of National Museum of Korea, look at a lacquered sutra box from the Goryeo period during a donation ceremony at the museum in Seoul on Tuesday. From left are Kim Jung-tae, chairman of Hana Financial Group and chairman of FNMK, Kim, Shin Sung-soo, chairman of Korea Industries Co. and vice chairman of FNMK, and Yi Yong-hee, senior conservator at the museum. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

“Until now, Korea has held only one piece of Goryeo najeon chilgi art (lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl decorations) that still holds its original shape, which is here at our museum,” she said.

The latest acquisition raises the number to two.

“I have little doubt that this lacquer art has a value as significant as National Treasures,” Kim added.

The museum plans to display the relic for public view as soon as possible.

“The Friends of National Museum of Korea purchased it from a private collector in Japan. At first the Japanese owner had no intention of selling the work to us, but we persuaded him after many rounds of talks,” said Shin Sung-soo, head of the group’s collection committee.

He did not disclose how much they paid for the relic, but an official at the museum said it would have cost them at least 2 billion won ($1.9 million).

The rectangular wooden box, unveiled to the press Tuesday, is inlaid with over 450 patterns of peonies, turtles and other shapes.

“Each peony pattern has nine petals and many tiny leaves. One can imagine how delicate the work must have been,” said Yi Yong-hee, senior conservator at the museum’s conservation science lab.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)