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Goryeo mother-of-pearl lacquerware purchased from Japanese collector unveiled

“Goryeo Lacquered Box Inlaid with Mother-of-Pearl Chrysanthemum and Scroll Design” (CHA)
“Goryeo Lacquered Box Inlaid with Mother-of-Pearl Chrysanthemum and Scroll Design” (CHA)

The Cultural Heritage Administration on Thursday unveiled the “Goryeo Lacquered Box Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl Chrysanthemum and Scroll Design” previously held in Japan at the National Palace Museum of Korea.

The artifact was returned to Korea in December last year.

“Mother-of-pearl lacquerware with our 1,000-year history has returned. This artifact is our cultural heritage that contains our DNA,” head of CHA Chung Jae-suk said during a press conference held Thursday.

The Goryeo lacquered box was originally part of a set of five nested boxes. According to CHA, only three boxes that are identical to this one are known to exist today without severe damage. It was also the only one that the agency could purchase as it was owned by a private collector.

“Most of the artifacts were already designated as cultural artifacts by Japan’s government,” the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation official said. As such, they cannot be taken out of Japan. The foundation was involved in the negotiations with the artifact’s owner, according to CHA.

“It has been eight years since the establishment of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation. We are happy to present the foundation’s role and purpose today,” Chung added.

According to CHA, around 20 Goryeo kingdom (918-1392) mother-of-pearl lacquerware items are known to exist today, with most collected by major museums in the US and Japan.

Only two lacquerware artifacts -- lacquered round stick inlaid with mother-of-pearl chrysanthemum and scroll design and a lacquered sutra box that was used to store Buddhist scriptures-- existed in Korea before the return of this box. The sutra box was also purchased from Japan and was donated to NMK in 2014 by the Friends of National Museum of Korea, a private group supporting the state-run museum.

The returned box is approximately 10 centimeters long and weighs around 50 grams. It is covered with abalone shell, gently colored tortoiseshell and metal wire inlay decorations. On the lid and body of the box, chrysanthemum and vine-shaped design are presented as the main motif.

The returned mother-of-pearl-inlaid lacquerware will be transferred to the National Museum of Korea and will be presented to the public through the exhibition “Ancient Colors: Lacquer,” which will be held from Dec. 22 to March 7 next year.

“Two years ago we also held an exhibition on the Goryeo era, but most of the artifacts that were in Japan at the time could not be presented. So I am thrilled to present this box at our exhibition this year. We will make sure that the artifact shines in our exhibition,” NMK Director-General Bae Ki-dong said during the conference.

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heradlcorp.com)
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