SEOUL, Jan 20 — It’s a first in South Korea. Highly impacted by the pandemic, the Kansong Art Museum is selling certain works at auction in order to survive. A practice that is highly controversial in the Asian country, as well as elsewhere. We take a closer look.

“An indispensable decision, and a hard one to make, for the future of Kansong.” The Kansong Art and Culture Foundation justified the sale at K Auction, on January 27, of several historical sculptures from the collection of the Kansong Art Museum in Seoul in these terms. 

One of them is a gilded bronze shrine, dating from the 11th century, representing a triad of Buddhas. The other is a gilded bronze statue of three standing Buddhas, dating back to the 6th century. The value is estimated at up to 85 billion South Korean won (about about RM300 million), according to The Art Newspaper

This sum should allow the Kansong Art Museum to cover logistics costs and costs involved with maintaining the collections, after many years of closure. The Seoul-based cultural institution closed its doors in 2014 to enter a major renovation phase. Part of this massive undertaking includes the construction of a new warehouse, partially funded by the South Korean government. This is the first time public funds have been allocated to a private art museum. 

Parting with national treasures?

However, South Korean authorities are not happy with the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation’s decision to sell several national works of art at auction. The ones on sale at K Auction have the distinction of being recognised as national treasures. Less than 400 artifacts and heritage sites have this official status. 

According to The Korea Herald, this classification prevents these historical pieces from being acquired by foreign buyers or from leaving South Korea. However, they can be purchased by individuals or institutions, cultural or not, in South Korea. For instance the National Museum of Korea could come to the rescue of the Kansong Art Museum by acquiring the two pieces it is auctioning at K Auction. But nothing is certain given the meagre annual budget of the institution allotted to diversifying its collections...

This isn’t the first time that the Kansong Art Museum has parted with some of its treasures to stay afloat. Back in May 2020, it tried to sell two Buddha statues at auction. While they did not find a buyer during that auction, they ended up joining the collection of the National Museum of Korea for an undisclosed amount. 

In recent years, many museums in the United States and the United Kingdom have decided to auction off parts of their collections to renew them or to finance some of their expenses. This practice, better known as “deaccessioning,“ has been a hotbed of controversy since the beginning of the health crisis, whether in Europe, North America or Asia. — ETX Studio