Why is a South Korean museum auctioning off national treasures?

In South Korea, a cash-strapped museum is set to auction state-designated “national treasures” from its collection to ease its financial woes. Although the move appears to be legal under South Korean law, it is the first time in the country’s history that such significant cultural property has been offered for sale at an auction.

Seoul’s Kansong Art Museum, South Korea’s oldest private art institution, announced last week that it will put up for sale next Thursday, Jan. 27, two valuable ancient artifacts from its collection. The pieces will be sold at K Auction, one of the largest auction houses.

The two artifacts up for auction are a portable gilt bronze triad Buddha shrine dated between the 11th and 12th centuries and a 6th century gilt bronze standing Buddha triad inscribed “Year Gyemi”. The first, a miniature version of a Buddhist shrine housing a Buddha statue, is sold for 28 billion won to 40 billion won (~$23.6 to $33.7 million). The second, a seven-inch-tall bronze Buddha believed to have been worn by Buddhists for their spiritual protection, is estimated at 3.2-45 billion won (~$27-37.7 million). Combined, they are expected to shatter previous records for the sale of antiques in the country.

A 6th-century gilt bronze standing Buddha triad inscribed “Gyemi Year” for sale on the K Auction website.

On the K Auction website, the two national treasures are featured in a grand live sale that also includes dozens of works by modern and contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei and others.

This is not the first time that the Kansong Art Museum has offered antiques from its collection for sale. In 2020 he alienated two more Buddhist artifacts, but the auction failed due to a lack of bidders. The National Museum of Korea eventually decided to purchase the two pieces for a total of 3 billion won (~$25.2 million).

When asked if he would bid again at the next auction, the National Museum answered the Herald of Korea that he could consider doing so if he deems the elements appropriate. But it’s unclear how the state-funded museum could afford the artifacts, given its annual acquisition budget of just 4 billion won (~$33.6 million).

The Kansong Museum (known in Korea as Gansong) was founded in 1938 by philanthropist Jeon Hyung-pil, who collected historical artifacts to prevent their expulsion from the country during the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945 .

In 2014, the Kansong went into debt and has remained closed ever since. The museum has pushed back its reopening dates several times, most recently announcing that it will open later in 2022 when construction on a new stage facility is complete.

The Kansong Art and Culture Foundation, which runs the museum, released a statement imploring the Korean public “to please understand that this was a necessary and difficult decision for Kansong’s future.” art diary reported.

The foundation has yet to respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, leaving our questions about the intended use of proceeds from the sale unanswered.

There are approximately 350 state-recognized national treasures in South Korea, many of which are heritage sites. According to Herald of Korea, state-designated cultural property is prohibited from sale abroad, but anyone can sell or buy it in the country as long as it is notified in advance to the Cultural Heritage Administration .

Desperate for money, the Kansong explored all possible avenues to generate income. Last year, he sold 100 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) from another national treasure in his collection to pay for operational costs. The NFTs featured a section of the Hunmin jeongeum, a 33-page guide to the Korean alphabet. They sold for around $87,000 each. It was another precedent set by the Kansong, marking the first time a Korean national treasure was traded on the blockchain.

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