For the first time, a Korean museum is auctioning off ‘national treasures’

The Kansong Art and Culture Foundation, which runs South Korea’s oldest private museum, the Kansong Art Museum in Seoul (also known as Gansong), auctioned off two historical sculptures that were listed as national treasures later this month. this.

For sale: A portable gilt bronze shrine of a Buddha triad, dated to around the 11th century, carrying an estimate of KRW 2.8 billion to KRW 4 billion (£1.7-2.5 million) ; and a gilt bronze standing Buddha triad dated to the 6th century, estimated at KRW 3.2-4.5 billion (£2-2.7 million). The two are being sold by Seoul auction house K Auction on January 27 and will be part of a major live sale featuring works by Park Seo-Bo and Yayoi Kusama.

They will likely set records for the highest price achieved by cultural objects at auction in Korea, which currently stands at KRW 3.1 billion (£1.9 million) for a white porcelain pot from the Joseon dynasty, sold by Seoul Auction in 2019.

The sale marks the first time in Korean history that “national treasures” – the highest of Korea’s eight state-designated heritage classifications – have been disposed of by a museum, according to K Auction. There are just over 350 national treasures in Korea; many of them are heritage sites.

In a statement, the Kansong Arts and Culture Foundation urged the Korean public “to understand that this is a necessary and difficult decision for Kansong’s future.” By law, state-designated heritage items cannot leave South Korea or be sold overseas.

A spokesperson for the foundation declined to say whether funds from the sale will go towards ongoing renovations to the Kansong Museum, which has closed the building to the public since 2014. Part of that overhaul includes a storage facility being construction with KRW. 4.4 billion (£3 million) of government funding, an unprecedented grant for a private museum, given because of Kansong’s contribution to Korea’s cultural heritage.

Gilt-bronze standing Bodhisattva, left, and gilt-bronze standing Buddha, two ancient statues previously owned by the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation and purchased by the National Museum of Korea. © K-Auction

The museum has reportedly been in financial difficulty for the past decade, and this is not the first time it has alienated works. In 2020, he attempted to auction two more Buddha statues (designated second nationally as ‘treasures’), for a combined high estimate of £1.8million. The works did not attract enough bids, but were later purchased by the National Museum of Korea for an undisclosed price.

It is unclear whether the National Museum will be able to stretch its £2.3million annual acquisition budget to snag the two works for sale. But a museum spokesperson told the Korean newspaper JoongAngDaily that he “considers” buying the statues.

The Kansong Museum was founded in 1938 by Jeon Hyung-pil, a wealthy philanthropist who collected Korean art and cultural artifacts during Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945 to prevent the nation’s treasures from being expelled from the country .

Last year, in an effort to raise funds for running costs, the museum released 100 NFTs from another national treasure in its collection, a section of the Hunminjeongeum, a guide to the Korean alphabet. hangul. They sold for £61,500 each, marking the first time a South Korean national treasure has appeared on the blockchain.