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What next for Kansong Art Museum?

Treasure No. 285, Gilt-Bronze Standing Bodhisattva failed to find new owners during an auction held by K-Auction in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul on Wednesday. The treasure‘s bidding started at 1.5 billion won.
Treasure No. 285, Gilt-Bronze Standing Bodhisattva failed to find new owners during an auction held by K-Auction in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul on Wednesday. The treasure‘s bidding started at 1.5 billion won.

Two state-designated treasures from the Kansong Art Museum will be returned to the museum after an auction Wednesday failed to find new owners.

The two treasures -- Treasure No. 284, Gilt-Bronze Standing Buddha and Treasure No. 285, Gilt-Bronze Standing Bodhisattva -- which were put on the block at K-Auction at a starting price of 1.5 billion won each, failed to attract any bidders.

“The detailed schedule of the return cannot be disclosed due to our contract with the clients,” said Son Yee-chan, an official from K-Auction.

Eyes are now on what Kansong will do with the two treasures.

“The sales decision is a family issue,” an official from the museum told The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity.

Some experts see the likelihood of Kansong Art Museum discussing possible sales with the National Museum of Korea.

Earlier, the cultural property experts pointed to the price as an obstacle to the state-run museum from acquiring the treasures. The museum’s annual budget for acquisitions is 4 billion won.

However, the expectation that the NMK may bid for the two treasures was heightened when the Friends of National Museum of Korea, a private organization created in 1974 to support the National Museum of Korea, was reported to have expressed interest in providing financial support for the purchase on Wednesday.

According to the organization, it has been collecting around 1 billion won annually toward purchases of cultural artifacts by the museum.

An official from the privately-run Kansong Art Museum has also hinted at hopes of NMK purchasing the artifacts.

“We requested K-Auction to consider national museums first before private entities, if possible,” the art museum official said.

However, K-Auction‘s Son told The Korea Herald that it was decided to proceed with the auction as it was not possible to meet such requests after the items had been put on the market.

Other experts suggest that the Kangsong Art Museum may try to auction the artifacts again.

“Considering Kansong’s symbolic role (in the preservation of Korean cultural heritage), it is unfortunate that the museum had to choose to sell due to financial difficulties. However, there is nothing bad about private museums choosing to put their items up for auction,” a cultural heritage expert said on condition of anonymity.

“The buyer, even if it is a private entity, is highly likely to understand the value of the artifacts. There are many cases overseas of the value of artifacts being raised after individuals purchased them through an auction.”

On May 21, the museum also signaled that two other Buddhist sculptures might be auctioned at a later date as the museum aims to focus more on its collections of paintings and ceramics.

If the Kansong Art Museum decides to put the treasures on auction again, it will have to make its decision in June.

“Our major auctions happen every other month. It differs from item to item but we usually take applications 30 days before the auction day,” said a K-Auction public relations official.

Kansong Chun Hyung-pil established the Kansong Art Museum in 1938, during the Japanese colonial era, to prevent precious cultural artifacts from being taken out of the country.

The museum claims that it has been going through some financial difficulties since the founder died in 1962.

The Kansong Art Museum said that its expenditure surged starting 2013, when it began holding more events and exhibitions to make the museum more public-friendly. On top of that, Kansong’s eldest son, Chun Sung-woo, died in 2018, resulting in a large inheritance tax bill that has put further financial strain on the museum.

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorpcom)
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