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  • Apr 29, 2021

Samsung Art Collection Dispersed to Korean Museums

KIM WHANKI, Women and Jars, c. 1950, oil on canvas, 281 × 568 cm. Courtesy National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul / Gwacheon / Deoksugung / Cheongju.

Six months after the death of Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee, the Lee family announced the fate of the billionaire’s extensive art collection at a press briefing on April 28. Over 23,000 artworks, including 21,600 antique pieces and 1,600 modern and contemporary artworks, will be donated to public institutions across South Korea, from the National Museum of Korea and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), to other smaller regional museums.

The National Museum of Korea in Seoul will receive more than 20,000 traditional works and cultural artifacts by Korean artists including 60-odd items designated as National Treasures and Treasures by the South Korean government, such as the 1751 landscape painting Inwang jesaekdo by Jeong Seon (1676–1759), a painter renowned for his ink paintings created in the late Joseon Dynasty (1700–1897). One of the few surviving Buddhist paintings from the Goryeo Period (918–1392), titled Painting of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion with a Thousand Arms, is also included in the bequest.

Another 1,200 masterpieces by both western and Korean artists are headed to the MMCA, including water lilies painting Le Bassin aux Nymphéas (1919–20) by the French impressionist Claude Monet, and Family of Marsupial Centaurs (1940) by the surrealist Salvador Dalí. The museum’s chief curator, Kim Jun-gi, stated that a showcase of Lee’s donated works, tentatively titled as “Masterpieces of Lee Kun-hee’s Collection,” will go on view starting from the MMCA's Seoul venue in August.

Some 200 pieces from Lee’s collection of Korean modern art, such as oil paintings by Lee Jung-seop and abstract works by postwar painter Kim Whanki, will be donated to five regional museums and organizations of the artists, which have struggled to secure the artists work for their collections due to increasing prices and scarcity. The Lee Jung-seop Art Gallery, in Jeju, for example, currently holds 47 artworks by the artist. Some of the pieces will return to the artists’ hometowns, such as Lee In-seong’s pieces which will be placed in museums in Daegu. 

The donation was announced as a part of the family’s plan to pay KRW 13 trillion (USD 11.7 billion) in inheritance tax bills, which will be separated into six installments paid over the next five years. At another press briefing, South Korea’s culture minister Hwang Hee also praised the family’s vast donations as “an unprecedented scale that hasn’t been seen even in other countries,” stating “it will greatly supplement the collection of national museums which have been facing difficulties in securing rare works (with limited budgets).”

Chloe Morrissey is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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