Lee Kun-hee: South Korea unveils 23,000 art collection from late Samsung boss

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Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Contributors Yoonjung Seo, CNNJake Kwon, CNN

Museum visitors got a first look at some of the 23,000 works of art donated by South Korea from the collection of the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

Two displays of the items opened in Seoul on Wednesday, just months after the businessman’s family announced the donation to pay an inheritance tax bill of over 12 trillion won ($ 10.4 billion).

The works are on display at the National Museum of Korea and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), recipients of Lee’s extensive collection. Objects on display include centuries-old antiques and contemporary Korean artwork, while paintings by Western names like Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet are due to be unveiled next year.

“Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang”, created in 1751 by the court painter Jeong Seon. Recognition: Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Lee, whose father founded the technology company Samsung in the 1930s, died last October at the age of 78. In April, his family announced that they would pay more than half the value of his estate in inheritance tax over a five-year period.

On the same day, the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced that the Lee family had donated approximately 23,000 antiques and works of art to public collections. In a press release at the time, the ministry said the takeover would help the two institutions “to compete with famous museums abroad”.

Neither Lee’s relatives nor the museums have disclosed the value of the donation or confirmed how or whether it will be used in the family’s inheritance tax obligations.

A painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir,

A painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “La Lecture”, was one of the items Lee’s family donated to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA). Recognition: Courtesy of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

MMCA received nearly 1,500 of the works the museum dubbed “the donation of the century” this week. According to senior curator Park Mihwa, the collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures represented the largest single contribution the museum received “in terms of value and scope”.

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

“We have received masterpieces that would have been difficult to buy with our annual collections budget of 5 billion won ($ 4.35 million),” she added. “We therefore expect that this collection will help art tourism and South Korea to become a powerhouse of art culture in the future.”

Artist “loved by Koreans”

The objects acquired by MMCA include 119 works by Western artists, including Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. But more than 90% of the pieces are by contemporary Korean artists, including over 100 works by painter Lee Jungseop and nearly 70 by acclaimed artisan Yoo Kangyul.

"Women and glasses," by the Korean painter Kim Whanki.

“Women and Jars” by the Korean painter Kim Whanki. Recognition: Courtesy of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

The museum’s new exhibition shows art from the 1920s to 1970s, spanning the period of the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and the subsequent military dictatorship. Park said the show highlights work by “34 artists loved by Koreans,” including influential landscape artist Byeon Gwansik, abstract painter Kim Whanki and contemporary sculptor Kwon Jinkyu.

An exhibition of older artifacts from Lee’s collection also opened at the National Museum of Korea on Wednesday. The show features 45 historical items, including Buddhist statues, rare wood carvings, and earthenware from the Bronze Age.

The museum also displays a number of items classified as “National Treasures” by the South Korean government, including an ink wash painting by Joseon Dynasty court artist Jeong Seon and a 6th century gilded bronze bodhisattva.

A bodhisattva, cast in bronze in the 6th century, was one of the items considered to be "National treasure" from the South Korean government.

A bodhisattva, cast in bronze in the 6th century, was one of the items classified as a “National Treasure” by the South Korean government. Recognition: Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism uncovered that she plans to build a new museum entirely dedicated to Lee’s collection, with two possible locations in Seoul currently being considered.

Above: “Bull” (around 1950s) by the Korean painter Lee Jungseop.


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