How Korean art experts proved LACMA exhibition pieces to be forgeries

Posted on : 2024-07-10 16:45 KST Modified on : 2024-07-10 17:49 KST
A Western art museum inviting Korean specialists for an appraisal meeting was unprecedented, with observers calling it a heartening turn of events given the history of Asian art exhibitions in the US having previously been dictated by the perspectives of white curators and researchers
Lee Jung-seob’s “Children Playing with Pole” (1956), which is part of the collection at the Lee Jung-seop Art Museum in Seogwipo, Jeju Island. The piece was sold on Seoul Auction in March 2017 under the title “Two Children and a Dove.” The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s catalogue raisonné for Lee Jung-seob has it listed as “Children Playing with Pole.” On June 26, 2024, Tae Hyun-sun, a curator at Leeum Museum of Art, revealed that this was the original art piece on which a piece titled “Climbing Children” attributed to Lee Jung-seob displayed at LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit was based on. Lee’s announcement came during a meeting of Korean art experts held at LACMA. (courtesy of Seoul Auction)
Lee Jung-seob’s “Children Playing with Pole” (1956), which is part of the collection at the Lee Jung-seop Art Museum in Seogwipo, Jeju Island. The piece was sold on Seoul Auction in March 2017 under the title “Two Children and a Dove.” The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s catalogue raisonné for Lee Jung-seob has it listed as “Children Playing with Pole.” On June 26, 2024, Tae Hyun-sun, a curator at Leeum Museum of Art, revealed that this was the original art piece on which a piece titled “Climbing Children” attributed to Lee Jung-seob displayed at LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit was based on. Lee’s announcement came during a meeting of Korean art experts held at LACMA. (courtesy of Seoul Auction)

Editor’s note: This article was first reported by the Hankyoreh in its Korean edition at 3:16 pm KST on July 3, following its initial exclusive report [Exclusive] Works attributed to Korean painters shown at LACMA prove to be frauds, published in the Korean edition on June 30, 2024.

“The tile painting ‘Climbing Children,’ which was exhibited in this museum as a work by Lee Jung-seob, was not made by Lee Jung-seob. It is patently a replica. There is an actual original by Lee Jung-seob upon which this copy was modeled. I will show it to you now.”

The room began buzzing. The shocking news was shared by Leeum Museum of Art curator Tae Hyun-sun, who proceeded to project an image on the gallery’s screen showing an original 1956 work by the Korean artist Lee Jung-seob.

This work bore the title “Children Playing with Pole.” It boasted a curious composition, with a bamboo fishing rod crossing the center of the canvas. It showed a scene of two children at play: one at the top cradling a dove while holding a fishing line in the other hand, and the other at the bottom holding a fishing rod with both hands.

The impoverished Lee blended pencil, crayon, and low-quality oil paints to create forms and colors on paper. He applied simple yet focused brushstrokes to create a scene of playing children, with the meditative facial expressions of those who had transcended the plane of existence. To the top left, he applied a signature reading “Jung-seob.”

The audience members nodded in intuitive recognition. The tile painting in the gallery was quite different from the original on the screen.

The composition and figures were similar to the original one, but the image was clearly an inferior imitation. The fine, detailed lines were gone, while the depictions of the figures appeared simple and crude. The background was a different color, and there was no signature.

Tae explained, “I found the original work on which the piece presented to the museum was based after searching through the catalogue raisonné at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea.”

“The work presented at the exhibition was clearly not the original,” she stressed. The American curator appeared visibly unsettled.

So unfolded the discussion on the afternoon of June 26 at an invitational appraisal roundtable “study day” with four Korean art experts at the gallery where the special exhibition “Korean Treasures” was being held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Held between Feb. 25 and June 30 of this year, “Korean Treasures” presented pieces from the museum’s collection of Korean artworks donated by Chester Chang, a prominent Korean American collector. The roundtable was organized shortly before the exhibition’s conclusion amid a growing controversy over the authenticity of presented works credited to Lee Jung-seob and Park Soo-keun.

The authenticity questions began arising among local collectors and experts soon after the exhibition opened. In April, Korean appraisal experts and institutions, including the Galleries Association of Korea and the Park Soo-keun Appraisal Institute sent a list of questions about the circumstances behind the exhibition and certification of the works’ authenticity, contending that they were in fact forgeries.

The “Climbing Children” tile piece dated to the 1950s and attributed to Lee Jung-seob, which was shown as part of LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit. During a gathering of Korean art experts and appraisers on June 26, 2024, Leeum Museum of Art curator Tae Hyun-sun verified that this piece had been a replica based on an original by Lee Jung-seob. The photo is by Yoon Bum-mo, the former director of Korea’s MMCA, during the appraisal of the work prior to the exhibit in 2022. While the original was meant to be displayed vertically, LACMA displayed the replica horizontally. (courtesy of Yoon Bum-mo)
The “Climbing Children” tile piece dated to the 1950s and attributed to Lee Jung-seob, which was shown as part of LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit. During a gathering of Korean art experts and appraisers on June 26, 2024, Leeum Museum of Art curator Tae Hyun-sun verified that this piece had been a replica based on an original by Lee Jung-seob. The photo is by Yoon Bum-mo, the former director of Korea’s MMCA, during the appraisal of the work prior to the exhibit in 2022. While the original was meant to be displayed vertically, LACMA displayed the replica horizontally. (courtesy of Yoon Bum-mo)

Recently, Asian art curators at various US art institutions also began raising questions, prompting the roundtable’s hurried organization.

Four art historians were specially invited by LACMA to examine the exhibited works in question: Ewha Womans University Professor Emeritus Hong Sun-pyo; Lee Dong-kook, a calligraphy historian and the director of the Gyeonggi Province Museum; curator Tae Hyun-sun; and former Busan Museum of Art Director Kim Sun-hee.

During the roundtable, they delivered presentations and held discussions over the course of the day with the exhibitions’ organizer, Stephen Little, the director of LACMA’s Asian arts departments, as well as curators at other art institutions and experts in preservation science. In the process, they went back and forth over the authenticity of the exhibited works.

The original focus of the day’s meeting was to be a presentation by Little, who was responsible for planning the exhibition. Throughout the morning, he delivered an explanatory presentation stating that among the 100 donated works he had selected while visiting Chester Chang’s home over a three-year period, the paper and paint materials used in around 30 of them were found to have been produced at US factories during the 1950s and 1960s, and that the works were also shown to be the artists’ in terms of their iconography.

The occasion had the potential to simply be an incident event effectively signing off on his explanation.

But the mood dramatically shifted after lunch — and Little found himself backed into something of a corner — when Tae and Hong convincingly presented appraisal findings showing that the presented works were not authentic, along with clear documentation of the original works.

The decisive moment in determining the direction of the debate came when Tae proved that the work shown in the LACMA exhibition entitled “Climbing Children” was merely a copy, while showing a plate of Lee Jung-seob’s original work “Children Playing with Pole” from the collection of the Lee Jung-seop Art Museum in Seogwipo, a city on Jeju Island.

Shortly afterward, Hong offered a clear demonstration that the works by Lee and Park were not originals, noting the brushstrokes in the signatures and blind spots in the location where they were written.

Hong and Lee Dong-kook also criticized the abundance of forgeries and inferior works in the realm of ancient art, singling out paintings credited to court painters Yi In-mun and Kim Myeong-guk as well as works in the folk painting genre of munjado, or “paintings of written characters.”

A “study day” meeting held at LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit, to which four Korean art experts were invited. The final presenter of the meeting was Kim Sun-hee, the former director of the Busan Art Museum, who is pictured. On the far right side of the back row is LACMA Director Michael Govan. (courtesy of Lee Dong-kook)
A “study day” meeting held at LACMA’s “Korean Treasures” exhibit, to which four Korean art experts were invited. The final presenter of the meeting was Kim Sun-hee, the former director of the Busan Art Museum, who is pictured. On the far right side of the back row is LACMA Director Michael Govan. (courtesy of Lee Dong-kook)

The atmosphere changed quickly, as LACMA Director Michael Govan acknowledged the issues and said that no catalog would be published for the exhibition.

Lee Dong-kook said, “Stephen Little kept insisting that he would present documentation, while saying that the Korean appraisal experts’ forgery conclusions could not be trusted, but the other LACMA officials were fully attentive to the Korean experts’ opinions.”

“The meeting ended with LACMA effectively giving a full acknowledgment of the errors in the exhibition and proposing ongoing joint research,” he added.

This surprising outcome may be seen as the result of the revelation of the Lee Jung-seop Art Museum’s original.

The situation of a Western art museum inviting Korean specialists for an appraisal meeting was unprecedented. Observers are calling it a heartening turn of events, given the history of Asian art exhibitions in the US having been dictated by the perspectives of white curators and researchers there.

Indeed, some analysts suggested that a major factor in LACMA’s decision to belatedly invite the Korean experts to do an appraisal was the rapid souring of opinion among US art institutions and curators after local Asian art curators in the US learned about the authenticity debate from reports in the Hankyoreh and other media.

While the museum said it would not publish a catalog, many observers in the Korean art world were left with a bitter taste in their mouths. 

The surviving family members of Park Soo-keun, who hold the copyrights to his work, sent a list of questions in April while demanding that the works credited to him be taken down until their authenticity was verified. Their request was completely ignored by LACMA, which went ahead with the exhibition.

Some observers contended that the museum should apologize for its actions, calling them insensible and a breach of etiquette.

One art history expert said, “This exhibition had a negative impact on perceptions of Korean art in the US because of works that were falsely credited or inferior in quality. It’s difficult to comprehend how they would wait until [the exhibition] was almost over to hold the appraisal meeting with Korean experts.”

The museum had reportedly considered seeking preliminary advice from Korean appraisal experts ahead of the exhibition’s opening but opted not to do so, citing the fact that the appraisal would be spearheaded by gallery world figures who would have an interest in the outcome.

By Roh Hyung-suk, senior staff writer

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

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