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Priceless: Small Museum with Big Heart Returns Plundered Art

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Detail of painting by Courtesy of the OKCHF

Amidst a host of international battles over the ownership of plundered artworks, a small museum in Virginia is doing the right thing by repatriating a priceless piece of religious art.

Norfolk's Hermitage Museum & Gardens has just given a rare 18th century Buddhist painting on fabric from its collection to the National Museum of Korea. The Hermitage Museum was founded by William and Florence Sloane in 1937 and opened to the public in 1942.  

Hermitage Museum and Gardens, Norfok, VA by Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum and Gardens

The Sloane's collection of fine and decorative art spans 5,000 years, represents 30 countries and includes over 5,000 objects. The collection is housed in their former home, a 42-room Arts and Crafts mansion on the shore of the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Virginia. Approximately 20% of the collection is Asian art. 

Hermitage Museum and Gardens, Norfok, VA by Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum and Gardens

The Korean Sakyamuni Triad Painting's century-long, circuitous journey was finally completed when it was returned to Korea with the assistance of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation (OKCHF). The focus of the OKCHF is to preserve and protect Korean art, and to reclaim some of the art which was plundered during the Japanese occupation.

Korean Sakyamuni Triad Painting by Courtesy of the OKCHF

The 10-foot by 10-foot painting depicts Buddha delivering a sermon to his followers. Unlike other images of the time, Buddha's disciples are not positioned behind him, but are depicted sitting in front of him in rapt attention. OKCHF Chairman AHN Hwi-joon notes that, "this tapestry depicts the Buddha in a deeply moving way that touches the hearts of viewers," and (it) "should be designated as a National Treasure."

Colin Brady, Chief Curator at the Hermitage, accompanied the 18th century Korean Sakyamuni Triad painting on its return to South Korea in December, 2013. He noted that the "estimated value of the work is about $200,000, and the cost of restoration will be between $70,000 and $100,000. It will take close to two years to complete the restoration."

The painting being unloaded at the Incheon airport. by Courtesy of the OKCHF

Brady with Chairman Ahn Hwi Joon. The document recognizes the repatriation. by Courtesy of the OKCHF

Following restoration, the painting will remain in Korea permanently, on display at the museum. Funding for the restoration is being provided by OKCHF, the Korean museum, and internationally-known League of Legends creator Riot Games.

The painting is inspected in the conservatory, Nat'l Museum of Korea (Seoul) by Courtesy of the OKCHF

This Buddha's journey began during the colonial occupation of Korea from 1910-1945, when Japan plundered tens of thousands of pieces of Korea's artistic treasures.  Asian art dealership, Yamanaka & Company, Inc., was one of the primary providers of Asian antiquities to the west, and had offices in New York, Beijing, Osaka and London. Some time prior to 1940, one of its employees removed this painting from a Korean Buddhist temple by cutting it out of its frame and rolling it up. 

By 1943, Yamanaka & Company was in the process of liquidation and the painting had changed hands to NYC's Parke-Bernet Galleries. It was included in two auctions first for $6,000.00 and later for $2,000.00, but remained unsold. Finally, in May of 1944 it was purchased at auction by Florence Sloane for $450.  

Yamanaka catalogue page, 1944 auction by Courtesy of the OKCHF

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Meryl Ann Butler is an artist, author, educator and OpedNews Managing Editor who has been actively engaged in utilizing the arts as stepping-stones toward joy-filled wellbeing for over 25 years. She studied art with Harold Ransom Stevenson in Sea Cliff NY for seven years before opening her own art school. Stevenson had (more...)

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You are truly a great journalist and historian, Me... by Charles Roll on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 1:00:03 AM
Wow, Charles, thank you so much! And thanks for th... by Meryl Ann Butler on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 8:05:59 AM
very good. We should though add the firebombing of... by Mark Sashine on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 7:07:13 AM
Thanks Mark! And I'm glad to have other examples l... by Meryl Ann Butler on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 8:07:14 AM
Yay for doing the right thing! I remember travelin... by Lise Stoessel on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 9:50:30 AM
Thanks for your comment Lise! Yes I have often mus... by Meryl Ann Butler on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 2:49:51 PM
Fun, informative essay, though it reminds me of t... by Robert S. Becker on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 10:58:19 AM
Thanks for your comment Robert!  You are righ... by Meryl Ann Butler on Friday, Feb 14, 2014 at 2:55:37 PM