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Lee Kun-hee Collection

Donations from Lee Kun-hee's collection: From national treasures to Western masterpieces

By Apr 30, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

▲ Korean modern artist Lee Jung-seob's A Scenery of Seopseom Island
▲ Korean modern artist Lee Jung-seob's A Scenery of Seopseom Island

The Samsung Group heirs' announcement that they will donate some 23,000 pieces of art and cultural artifacts collected by the late Chairman Lee Kun-hee to the country’s public museums is attracting an extraordinary level of attention from art lovers in South Korea and abroad.

Estimated to be worth more than 2 trillion won ($1.8 billion), Lee’s distinct assortment of art includes 16 government-designated national treasures, 46 treasures as well as paintings by some of the most prominent artists of the Western world, incluing Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.

From the Gilt-bronze Standing Bodhisattva Triad, South Korea’s 134th national treasure, to Flowers and Butterflies by the country’s preeminent female painter Chun Kyung-ja, below are some of the most striking pieces in the donated collection.

TREASURES FROM ALL PERIODS OF KOREAN HISTORY

▲ Chuseongbudo (Sounds of Autumn), 1,393rd treasure of South Korea
▲ Chuseongbudo (Sounds of Autumn), 1,393rd treasure of South Korea

This painting by Kim Hong-do, arguably the most renowned painter of the Joseon Dynasty, illustrates a scene in the poem titled Chuseongbu, or Sounds of Autumn, composed by Ou Yangxiu of China’s Song Dynasty.

The work captures a line in the poem, which reads: “Only the moon and stars are shining brightly, sir. I can find no trace of a person. The noise is made by the swaying of tree branches.”

This is the reply of an errand boy in response to his master’s instruction to check outside after the master hears a noise while reading a book in his room, according to a description by the Cultural Heritage Administration, a government agency responsible for the preservation and promotion of Korea's cultural heritage.

Kim was 61 years old in 1805 when he finished the painting, his final piece before his death in 1806. Experts say that this painting embodies Kim’s musings on the transience of life.

▲ Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra) in Gold on Indigo Paper, 235th national treasure of South Korea
▲ Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra) in Gold on Indigo Paper, 235th national treasure of South Korea

Avatamsaka Sutra is the principal scripture of Korea's Avatamsaka sect, also called the Flower Garland school of Buddhism.

The main idea in the Avatamsaka Sutra is that the Buddha and all other living things are not different or separate entities, but one.

The first page of the book shows a fine painting sophisticatedly colored in gold, which captures the essence of the book.

While the exact year of this transcript’s production is not known, it is estimated to have been published between 1341 and 1367, at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), during which Buddhism was the national religion.

▲ Gilt-bronze Standing Bodhisattva Triad, 134th national treasure of South Korea
▲ Gilt-bronze Standing Bodhisattva Triad, 134th national treasure of South Korea

Another piece that depicts the country’s long history of Buddhism is this unique object that shows a Bodhisattva with two attendant Arhats. The statue dates back to the Baekje Period (18 BC-660 AD), more than 1,500 years ago.

▲ Sword with Ring Pommel, 776th treasure of South Korea
▲ Sword with Ring Pommel, 776th treasure of South Korea


This large sword is also from the Three Kingdoms era, found in a tomb from the Silla Period (57 BC-935 AD). This sword consists of a handle made of gold and a blade made of steel, with a loop at the end of the pommel.

The Three Kingdoms era, from 57 BC to 668 AD, was a period when the three kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla existed on the Korean Peninsula.

The magnificent dragon design indicates that the owner of the sword might have been a nobleman of high status, according to the Cultural Heritage Administration.

▲ Celadon Bowls and Dish with Inlaid Peony Design, 1039th treasure of South Korea
▲ Celadon Bowls and Dish with Inlaid Peony Design, 1039th treasure of South Korea

Lee Kun-hee’s wide range of artwork also included priceless ceramics, such as this ensemble of Goryeo celadon dishes and bowls.

The three bowls were used in Buddhist temples and are sets of nesting bowls, varying in size, according to the Cultural Heritage Administration.

The dish has a chrysanthemum on the bottom of the inside, surrounded by four peony flowers. It forms a set with the three nesting bowls.

▲ Bronze Rattles from Deoksan, 255th national treasure of South Korea
▲ Bronze Rattles from Deoksan, 255th national treasure of South Korea

The older pieces in Lee’s collection include these items from the Bronze Age.

The Cultural Heritage Administration says that these objects are thought to have been used by religious leaders, who also served as political leaders, during the Bronze Age as they were believed to have magical powers.

“Lee Kun-hee’s donations truly supplement our museum’s collection of national treasures,” said the National Museum of Korea on Samsung’s donations.

MASTERPIECES OF WESTERN ART

▲ Untitled, painted in 1875 by Paul Gauguin
▲ Untitled, painted in 1875 by Paul Gauguin

Standing out among Lee’s donation of Western art is Paul Gauguin’s Untitled, painted in 1875 before he started his full-time career as an artist. This piece is said to embody the artistic direction of Gauguin’s earlier works.

▲ Le Bouquet des Mariés by Marc Chagall
▲ Le Bouquet des Mariés by Marc Chagall

Le Bouquet des Mariés exemplifies the true Chagallian style that puts an emphasis on color contrasts while evoking a dreamlike mood.

▲ Market at Pontoise by Camille Pissarro
▲ Market at Pontoise by Camille Pissarro


This piece is painted by the impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, considered as one of the best landscape artists to date.

The artwork depicts market scenes of Pontoise, a city located in northern France, showing details of merchants, customers and their interactions.

Other pieces of Western art donated by Samsung include those by Auguste Renoir as well as 112 pieces of ceramic work by Pablo Picasso not yet disclosed to the public.

KOREA’S MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS

Samsung Group’s list of donations included art pieces by Lee Jung-seob and Park Soo-keun, considered the two most celebrated painters of Korean modern art.

▲ A Girl Tending to an Infant by Park Soo-keun
▲ A Girl Tending to an Infant by Park Soo-keun

Park Soo-keun Museum, located in Yanggu County of Gangwon Province, received 14 pieces of Park’s artwork from Samsung, including two of his most famous pieces, A Girl Tending to an Infant and Leisure Time.

The museum has a long history of interaction with the Samsung Group, as the late Chairman’s wife and the director of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, aided in its creation.

Lee Jung-seob Museum, located on Jeju Island, received 12 pieces of art by the artist, including A Scenery of Seopseom Island drawn in 1951, which he painted while evacuating on the island during the Korean War.

The piece is said to convey one of his happiest memories, when he was living together with his family on Jeju Island during wartime, in his short life.

LEE’S CULTURAL CONTRIBUTION BEYOND THE CAPITAL 

The Lee family also made large contributions to local public museums across the country, by donating art pieces to museums located in the artists’ hometowns.

▲ Woman in Yellow by Lee In-sung
▲ Woman in Yellow by Lee In-sung

Daegu Art Museum received 21 pieces by eight local artists, including Lee In-sung’s Woman in Yellow, drawn in 1934, and Lee Kwae-dae’s Port.

Daegu is also the birthplace of Lee Kun-hee.

▲ Flowers and Butterflies by Chun Kyung-ja
▲ Flowers and Butterflies by Chun Kyung-ja

Jeonnam Museum of Art, located in South Jeolla Province, also received 21 pieces from local artists, including Flowers and Butterflies by Chun Kyung-ja.

“Now we can also enjoy a high level of art culture in our province, thanks to Samsung’s donations. We will open an exhibition with the donated pieces from September,” said Lee Ji-ho, the director of the museum.

▲ Pose by Yim Jik-soon
▲ Pose by Yim Jik-soon

Samsung donated 30 pieces of art to Gwangju Museum of Art, including Yim Jik-soon’s Pose, which portrays a woman sitting in a chair.

“This donation means a lot to our museum, as we previously had the artist’s still life and landscape paintings only,” said a museum representative.

▲ A silver foil drawing by Lee Jung-seob
▲ A silver foil drawing by Lee Jung-seob


Gwangju also received four of Lee Jung-seob’s silver foil drawings as well as four postcard drawings by the same artist.

The silver foil drawings are the artist’s simple sketches drawn on tobacco-wrapping silver foil paper sheets, whereas the postcard drawings are those sent to his lover Yamamoto Masako, who later became his wife.

Write to Soo-young Seong at syoung@hankyung.com

Daniel Cho edited this article.

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