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  • Jul 10, 2020

LACMA Repatriates Korean Buddhist Paintings


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has repatriated two Buddhist paintings at the request of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The works were stolen from a temple in 1954 by United States military personnel from South Korea after the Korean War (1950–53). The announcement was publicized in a July 1 post on LACMA's blog, penned by Stephen Little, head of the Chinese, Korean, and South and Southeast Asian art department, and Korean art associate curator Virginia Moon.

The works, returned last week, are the large-scale Yeongsanhoesangdo (Preaching Shakyamuni Buddha) (1755) and three sections of Siwangdo (1798), depicting the Kings of Hell, all by anonymous Korean painters. The two paintings will be reinstalled in August at the Order’s Sinheungsa Temple in Sokcho, a city located on the northeastern coast of South Korea.

The Jogye Order—which is the modern representative of the millennial-long school of Seon Buddhism—first reached out to the museum in January 2015. The Order stated then that several of the museum’s Korean Buddhist paintings were stolen from its temples, including Sinheungsa. These paintings—which include the two in question along with the extensively published Jijang Siwangdo (Ksitigarbha and the Kings of Hell) (15th–16th century)—were acquired by the museum in the 1990s: Jijang Siwangdo was acquired in 1994 from New York’s Kang Collection gallery, with unclear provenance beyond 1988; Yeongsanhoesangdo and Siwangdo were acquired “in good faith” in 1998 from Mary S. French, who claimed to have found them in the attic of her son’s newly purchased New Hampshire house.

The blog post details that internal Jogye Order documents showed that Jijang Siwangdo had been reported in 1988 as stolen from the Order’s monastery Yeombulan Heritage, leading to the museum’s eventual repatriation of it in July 2017. Meanwhile, extensive research including photographic evidence from American officers and a site visit to Sinheung Temple in 2016–17 confirmed that the other two were looted in 1954. The paintings were originally stolen during a period when the area around the Sinheungsa was occupied by the US Marines. LACMA continued to exhibit these two works in its overseas July 2018 exhibition at Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología, as its Board of Trustees had yet to make the decision to repatriate the paintings. 

In recognition of LACMA’s decision and its care for the objects, namely the museum’s conservation of Siwangdo and Yeongsanhoesangdo, the Jogye Order said that “If it were not for LACMA’s affection for Korean cultural properties and its relevant preservation efforts, the Preaching Sakyamuni Buddha would not have been fully preserved until now,” as reported by Artnet News. The Order has said that it will collaborate with LACMA for future projects, including artwork loans, educational programs, and exchanges of human resources. 

LACMA was established in 1961. With over 142,000 objects in its collection, it is the largest art museum in the western United States. In 2019, it held multiple exhibitions of Asian art, including “Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing,” examining writing and calligraphy throughout Korean history.

The move to repatriate the paintings is part of a larger call for the restitution of material culture and art, amid efforts to decolonize museums. In 2013, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two 10th-century stone statues, originally from Cambodia’s Koh Ker temple complex, to the Phnom Penh National Museum. In 2018, a 1819 royal bamboo investiture was repatriated to the National Palace Museum of Seoul by the auction house Tajan. More recently, after two years of legal dispute, a US court ruling this year on July 2 mandated that Sotheby’s New York return a 8th-century bronze horse to the Greek Ministry of Culture. The object was previously being offered at the auction house’s May 2018 sale.

Fion Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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