Sunday, September 5, 2010

Collector's devotion to reclaim cultural relics

Jung Jin-ho, president of the Antique House Youximzhae, looks at a bowl from his collections in the “Korean Heritage, Its Return and Resettlement” exhibition through Sept. 12 at the Press Center in central Seoul.
/ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Public attention on overseas cultural heritages is growing more than ever after Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Japan would return “Uigwe,” or the royal protocols of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), to Korea in his recent apology statement to mark the 100th anniversary of Japan’s forced annexation of Korea.

Currently, a total of 107,857 cultural properties are scattered throughout 18 countries. Some were illegally taken by invaders and others were sold or presented by our own hands during chaotic periods such as Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53).

How do we bring back the lost treasures? To reclaim the lost cultural assets, civic groups have made more concerted efforts than the government due to diplomatic and political sensitivity. More importantly, an individual’s action can make a difference in regaining cultural relics scattered around the world.

Some 300 pieces of Korean historical relics collected by Jung Jin-ho are on display in the “Korean Heritage, Its Return and Resettlement” exhibition.
/ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Jung Jin-ho, president of the Antique House Youximzhae, has collected Korean cultural treasures from various countries such as Japan, the United States, Britain, France and Germany for 15 years.

“I have bought back our cultural relics through overseas auctions such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s for the last 15 years. To reclaim our historical treasures, we individual collectors should buy them back at the cost of our own money,” Jung said in an interview with The Korea Times.

His antique gallery in Insa-dong has some 3,000 pieces of historical treasures including some 1,500 pieces of North Korean antiquities. His collection began back in 1997 when he studied ancient art in China. At that time, he witnessed a slew of major ancient North Korean relics being sold to China. “I was shocked. So I just bought some 1,000 pieces of North Korean relics at a time. That was my first collection. People said I was crazy at that time. But I think it’s my job now,” he said. 

Since then, he began developing an interest in art dealing and has purchased a myriad of Korean antiquities.

While traveling abroad to take part in major art dealings, he has met numerous individual collectors and museum officials to buy back the cultural items. 

Jung said that Korean ancient artifacts are much more appreciated among foreign art aficionados than Koreans themselves.
“It’s a pity that our nation’s people look down on their own culture. Korea is a cultured nation for its rich historical relics. I am sure that our culture can parallel the world’s top civilizations,” he said.

In the historically turbulent past, there were rare opportunities to appreciate Korean cultural heritage due to economic hardship but things have changed, he said. 

“Now it’s time to reclaim our cultural relics from abroad as our economic power is strong enough to do it. Cultural power should never be left behind. Cultural power should be equal to economic power,” said Jung. 

He emphasized that efforts should be stepped up at an individual level to reclaim relics because it can be a diplomatically and politically complicated issue. Private funds or individual collections are ways to buy back the cultural treasures. “Beyond the national level, private-level efforts are desperately needed,” he said.

The collector, however, stressed that it doesn’t mean all of the cultural relics should return to Korea. “I think we should change our attitude toward the national treasures overseas. Of course, the illegally looted relics should be returned but we should know the relics overseas are an important window to Korean heritage. Foreigners can understand Korean culture through our national treasures abroad,” he said.

His collection varies from antique Buddha statutes to wooden furniture. In order to show his collection to the general public, he is now holding an exhibition titled “Korean Heritage, Its Return and Resettlement,” through Sept. 12 at the Press Center in central Seoul. Some 300 pieces are on display.

The exhibition includes wooden furniture such as “bandaji” or blanket chest, wardrobes, dining tables, chairs and rare Buddha statues along with paintings.

The exhibition is divided into two parts — ancient artifacts in daily life and rare historical antiquities for professional art aficionados.
A Goryeo gilt bronze dragonhead-shaped ornament, which was taken to the U.S. during the Korean War, is one of the rare items to see. The typical dragonhead finial of the Joseon Kingdom has a humorous touch and similar kinds of finials can be currently found at the Daehan Gate of Deoksu Palace. 

A silver cup holder has a written inscription on the bottom, proclaiming that King Sunjong had bestowed it upon the wife of the British consul general John H. Jordan.

A mini Buddha statue from the Silla Kingdom standing at some 3 centimeters in height shows the outstanding and exquisite metal handiwork of the time. 

“Our cultural relics are very sophisticated and scientific when we thoroughly observe the usage of the objects. Through the antiquities, we can see the wisdom of our ancestors. I hope many people can enjoy the cultural relics,” he said.

The exhibition is being held in collaboration with the Asia Journalist Association. The proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to bereaved family members of Asian reporters who died on duty and child cancer patients. 

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