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‘Donation of the Century’: South Korea Unveils 23,000 Art Collection of Late Samsung Boss

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Authors Yunjung Seo, CNNJake Kwon, CNN

Museum visitors saw for the first time some of the 23,000 pieces of art donated to South Korea from the collection of the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

Two item exhibitions opened in Seoul on Wednesday, just months after the businessman’s family announced the donation as it seeks to pay more than 12 trillion won ($ 10.4 billion) inheritance tax bill.

The work is on display at the National Museum of Korea and the National Museum of Modern Art (MMCA), which are recipients of Lee’s extensive collection. Exhibits include centuries-old antiques and contemporary Korean artwork, while paintings by Western names such as Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet will be on display next year.

“Clearing after the rain on Mount Inwang”, created by the court painter Jong Son in 1751. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.

Lee, whose father founded the tech conglomerate Samsung in the 1930s, died last October at the age of 78. In April, his family announced that they expected to pay more than half of the value of his estate in inheritance tax over five years.

On the same day, the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced that the Lee family had donated about 23,000 antiques and artworks to government collections. In a press statement at the time, the ministry said the acquisition would help the two institutions “compete with prominent foreign museums.”

Neither Lee’s relative nor the museums have disclosed the value of the donation or confirmed how or even whether it would figure in the family’s tax obligations.

Painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Reading," was among the items donated by the Lee family to the National Museum of Modern Art (MMCA).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting Lecture was among the items donated by the Lee family to the National Museum of Modern Art (MMCA). Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of Contemporary Art.

The MMCA received nearly 1,500 works, which the museum this week called “the gift of the century.” According to senior curator Park Mihwa, the collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures represents the largest contribution the museum has received “in both value and scale.”

“The rare and major works of art from the early 20th century and overseas works have greatly increased the quality and quantity of the museum,” Park told CNN, describing the acquisition as “an opportunity to broaden the horizons of art history research through continuous research.”

“We received masterpieces that would be difficult to buy with our annual collection budget of 5 billion won ($ 4.35 million),” she added. “Therefore, we expect this collection to help art tourism as well as help South Korea become the center of art culture in the future.”

Artists loved by Koreans

Items acquired by the MMCA include 119 works by Western artists, including Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and Joan Miró. But more than 90% of the works are by contemporary Korean artists, including over 100 works by artist Lee Jong Sup and nearly 70 works by renowned master Yu Kangyeol.

"Women and banks" by the Korean artist Kim Vanki.

“Women and Jugs” by the Korean artist Kim Vanki. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of Contemporary Art.

The museum’s new exhibition features artwork from the 1920s to the 1970s, during the Japanese occupation, the Korean War and subsequent military dictatorship. Park said the exhibition features works by “34 artists loved by Koreans,” including the influential landscape painter Byung Gwangsik, abstract artist Kim Wanki and contemporary sculptor Kwon Jinkyu.

Meanwhile, an exhibition of old artifacts from Lee’s collection opened at the National Museum of Korea on Wednesday. The exhibition features 45 historical items, including Buddhist statues, rare woodcuts, and Bronze Age pottery.

The museum also displays a number of items designated as “National Treasures” by the South Korean government, including an ink painting by Joseon court painter Jong Son and a gilded bronze bodhisattva dating from the 6th century.

Bodhisattva, cast in bronze in the 6th century, was among the objects considered "National treasure" by the government of South Korea.

The Bodhisattva, cast in bronze in the 6th century, was among the items designated as a “national treasure” by the South Korean government. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said it plans to build a new museum entirely dedicated to the Lee collection, with two candidate sites in Seoul that are currently under consideration.

Top image: “Bull” (circa 1950s) by Korean artist Lee Jong Sup.


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