The Korea Herald


Address book showing foreign buyers of Korean cultural relics donated to Korea

Records of sales may help locate Korean cultural artifacts outside the country

By Kim Hae-yeon

Published : Dec. 20, 2022 - 11:45

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Robert Mattielli (OKCHF) Robert Mattielli (OKCHF)

Three significant historical materials that can help trace the whereabouts of Korean cultural heritage located abroad have been donated to Korea.

The donation was made by 97-year-old American collector Robert Mattielli. Among the donated materials is an address book showing foreign clients kept by Samuel W. Lee & Co., an antique art shop in Seoul in operation from the Japanese colonial period through Korean War. Also included are 58 business cards that Mattielli has kept of various art dealers from his time in Korea. A leaflet for a solo exhibition painter Park Soo-keun (1914-1965) is also included in the donated materials, according to the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation which announced the donation Monday.

Mattielli and his wife Sandra Mattielli, who now live in Oregon, collected a total of 1,946 pieces of Korean cultural heritage while he was working in Seoul from 1958 to 1988 as a civil service employee of the US Eighth Army.

This is not the first time that Mattielli has returned Korean cultural artifacts. In 2016, Mattielli donated an 18th century Korean Buddhist painting titled "Obuldo," which depicts the Five Buddhas, to Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province. The painting, which completes a series of 53 Buddhas painted in 1725, had been stolen from the temple in the early 1970s.

According to Mattielli, Samuel Lee, the owner of the Seoul antique store, had studied engineering at the University of Michigan in the US and sold antiquities mainly to foreigners in Korea.

The client address book of Samuel W. Lee & Co., located on Taepyeong-ro across from Deoksugung Palace, is the longest list of foreigners who purchased Korean cultural heritage items known today, with hundreds of records written from 1936 to 1958.

The book contains records of sales dates, addresses, items, and the names of Western and Japanese customers who purchased Korean art.

Purchase record of Helen Keller in Samuel Lee's client address book dated July 14, 1937 (OKCHF) Purchase record of Helen Keller in Samuel Lee's client address book dated July 14, 1937 (OKCHF)

Among the clients are renowned figures such as American author and activist Helen Keller (1880–1968).

Keller visited Korea from July 11 to 16, 1937, and the address book shows that she purchased a writing desk from Samuel Lee’s shop on July 14.

The 58 business cards that Mattielli acquired while living in Korea provide information on the shops that sold Korean art to foreigners. A further tracing of these shops will provide a comprehensive understanding of the means through which Korean art was moved abroad between the 1960s and 1980s.

Meanwhile, the leaflet for Park Soo-keun's solo exhibition at the Seoul Area Command's Library in 1962 includes 11 works that are not in the Leeum Museum of Art, which lists 33 works by Park.

Antique shop business cards collected by Mattielli (OKCHF) Antique shop business cards collected by Mattielli (OKCHF)

A more detailed research of the leaflet will be conducted as studies suggest that there were a total of 45 oil paintings at the exhibition, which leaves one work missing.

The donation was made during one of the OKCHF's research projects this year on the provenance of overseas Korean cultural heritage.

The OKCHF plans to share results of its research into the materials donated by Mattielli with the public while conducting consultations with institutions in Korea for the conservation and management of the donated items.