[Exclusive] Works attributed to Korean painters shown at LACMA prove to be frauds

Posted on : 2024-07-10 16:28 KST Modified on : 2024-07-10 17:07 KST
Korean experts say four artworks attributed to Lee Jung-seop and Park Soo-keun shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit cannot be seen as verified authentic works
A painting titled “Boy Riding a Bull” attributed to Lee Jung-seob that was shown as part of LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit. (courtesy of Michael Kim)
A painting titled “Boy Riding a Bull” attributed to Lee Jung-seob that was shown as part of LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit. (courtesy of Michael Kim)

Editor’s note: This article was first exclusively reported by the Hankyoreh in its Korean edition at 6:23 pm KST on June 30, 2024.

From February through the end of June, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) put on the “Korean Treasures” exhibition, showcasing works donated by Korean Americans. However, an official appraisal concluded that works by artists Lee Jung-seob and Park Soo-keun displayed in the exhibit cannot be confirmed as authentic. 

This assessment followed suspicions of forgery regarding these works, prompting LACMA to invite four Korean art experts for a special evaluation. As a result, LACMA Director Michael Govan decided not to publish a catalog for the exhibition and to conduct further investigations.

The special appraisal team included art historian Hong Sun-pyo, a professor emeritus at Ewha Womans University; Lee Dong-kook, a calligraphy historian and director of the Gyeonggi Province Museum; Tae Hyun-sun, curator of Leeum Museum of Art; and Kim Sun-hee, the former director of the Busan Museum of Art. From June 26 to 28, these experts inspected the artworks on display at LACMA and presented their findings to Stephen Little, the head of the Chinese, Korean, and South & Southeast Asian art departments at LACMA, and other curators involved in the exhibition during a research seminar.

Artworks shown as part of LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit. (courtesy of Michael Kim)
Artworks shown as part of LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit. (courtesy of Michael Kim)

The experts expressed doubts about the authenticity of two works each by Lee Jung-seob and Park Soo-keun. A tile piece, which had been displayed under the title “Climbing Children” and attributed to Lee, was identified as an unsigned reproduction of his 1950s original “Children Playing with Pole,” with Tae providing a clear print of the original work currently held in Korea. 

An oil painting titled “Boy Riding a Bull,” also attributed to Lee, was deemed inauthentic due to the absence of the artist’s unique techniques for depicting the bull’s eyes and the lack of energy and vitality in the depiction of the bull’s body. Additionally, the signature itself differed from those on authentic works, and its placement was not in an empty space, where Lee usually signs his art, leading the experts to conclude that it could not be an original work.

Similarly, the experts were of the opinion that a work attributed to Park Soo-keun titled “Three Women and Child” is a patched-together composition due to its unclear depictions of the background and figures, as well as the unclear iconographic relationship between the figures. The painting “Waikiki” was also noted to be significantly different in style from authenticated works by Park. However, Hong Sun-pyo suggested that these might be unsigned commissioned pieces produced by an artist based on photos at the request of an American collector.

Additionally, Hong Sun-pyo and Lee Dong-kook pointed out that paintings attributed to court painters Yi In-mun and Kim Myeong-guk in the antique art exhibition were either works by unidentified artists or Chinese artists.

LACMA Director Michael Govan speaks before an invitational appraisal roundtable “study day” with four Korean art experts held at the gallery where the “Korean Treasures” exhibit was taking place at the museum. On the right is Kim Sun-hee, a former director of the Busan Museum of Art; behind her is Tae Hyun-sun, a curator at Leeum Museum of Art. To the left of Kim and a row back is Hong Sun-pyo, a professor emeritus at Ewha Womans University. (courtesy of Lee Dong-kook)
LACMA Director Michael Govan speaks before an invitational appraisal roundtable “study day” with four Korean art experts held at the gallery where the “Korean Treasures” exhibit was taking place at the museum. On the right is Kim Sun-hee, a former director of the Busan Museum of Art; behind her is Tae Hyun-sun, a curator at Leeum Museum of Art. To the left of Kim and a row back is Hong Sun-pyo, a professor emeritus at Ewha Womans University. (courtesy of Lee Dong-kook)

The pair were highly critical, noting that this error resulted from a lack of basic prior investigation into the style and signature, and that a number of other submitted pieces also contained errors in relation to period or history and had markedly lower quality, making the exhibition’s name “Korean Treasures” itself a misnomer.

“During the process of preparing for the exhibition, a number of issues were raised regarding the level of quality and the authenticity of the donor’s collection,” Kim Sun-hee said in response to a question during the roundtable. “It has been pointed out that basic verifications were lacking and preparation in the planning stage was not very methodical. Unlike event organizer Stephen Little who continued to vouch for the legitimacy of the exhibition plan, the majority of museum officials wholly accepted the comments of the Korean experts.”

“Korean Treasures” opened on Feb. 25 as an exhibition featuring 35 ancient and contemporary pieces from 100 or so works in a collection of traditional and contemporary Korean art donated to LACMA by veteran Korean American collector Chester Chang in 2021. The debate over the authenticity of these pieces emerged directly after the exhibition’s opening, but it was a month later, in early April, when the issue blew up in the Korean art world. This was triggered by an unprecedented letter of inquiry sent to LACMA (as exclusively reported by the Hankyoreh on page 18 of the April 5 issue) in early April demanding information about the exhibition’s background and evidence of the works’ authenticity. This letter was sent by Yoon Bum-mo, the former director of Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, who wrote a report claiming the works in question were forged after assessing them in local storage in 2022. The letter was also signed by the Park Soo-keun Appraisal Institute, an organization that represents the surviving family of Park Soo-keun, and the Galleries Association of Korea. 

The entrance to the exhibit “Korean Treasures” at LACMA. (courtesy of Michael Kim)
The entrance to the exhibit “Korean Treasures” at LACMA. (courtesy of Michael Kim)

However, on May 21, LACMA sent the academy a reply signed by the curator without any specific explanation, simply stating they would continue to look into the matter.

It is unprecedented for a renowned Western museum to determine the authenticity of Korean artworks by inviting Korean experts to conduct an appraisal and hold an evaluation meeting. Now that Govan has effectively acknowledged the problem with the exhibition by halting the publication of the catalog, it remains to be seen what follow-up measures will be taken.

By Roh Hyung-suk, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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