Go to contents

“Misfortunate Return” of Goryeo Dynasty’s Buddhist Paintings

“Misfortunate Return” of Goryeo Dynasty’s Buddhist Paintings

Posted October. 13, 2004 23:14,   


Prosecutors have arrested a band of thieves who went to famous Japanese temples and stole 47 important cultural assets, including expensive Buddhist paintings of the Goryeo Dynasty.

Crime Investigation Department Four (Head Prosecutor Lee Hong-hoon) of the Seoul District Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested and prosecuted Kim (55) and Hwang (53), Korean shamanists, yesterday on the charge of stealing Buddhist paintings including Amitabha Samjonsang (a picture depicting three Amitabha Buddhas), estimated to be worth a billion won, which was kept in the treasury of Gakurin Temple in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan.

Ancient paintings they stole are important cultural assets assigned by Japan’s national, provincial, or city governments of which the estimated price amounts to 3.1 billion won.

The Results of the Investigation-

Kim and Hwang colluded with Kim’s brother (48, arrested and prosecuted in Japan and currently waiting for a trial), who was illegally staying in Japan, and committed a total of three crimes in 1998, 2001, and 2002.

The objects of the offense are three temples including Gakurin Temple, Aihuku Temple in Osaka Prefecture, and Linsho Temple in Aichi Prefecture. The prosecution said that these three were disguised as tourists and visited the scene about 10 times, and they opened the door using a crowbar (popularly called a pparu).

The Japanese police, which was set for investigation, arrested Kim’s brother last March and called for the cooperation of Korean prosecutors at the end of last June to catch the others who fled to Korea.

The prosecution is currently concentrating its efforts to find the whereabouts of five pieces of ancient Buddhist paintings including Amitabha Samjonsang, which Kim and Hwang claimed to have sold after they entered the country.

The Motif for the Crime was Perverted Patriotism?-

Kim testified before the prosecution, “I decided to commit the offense after reading a book on Buddhist paintings of the Goryeo Dynasty written by some professor of a university.”

In other words, Kim and Hwang collectively decided to recover the cultural assets, which Japan plundered, after knowing that most of the existing Buddhist paintings of the Goryeo Dynasty are preserved in Japan and almost none remain in Korea. However, the prosecution concluded that Kim’s statement is only an excuse since only five of the 47 pieces they stole are presumed to be Goryeo Dynasty’s Buddhist paintings (two of them were verified), because Kim sold the Amitabha Samjonsang to a local antique shop for 110 million won, which is only a tenth of its estimated price, and because they disposed of a part of their booty for money.

Where is the Amitabha Samjonsang?-

The Amitabha Samjonsang, which Kim sold to an antique shop, has changed its owner several times in the past and its current whereabouts are unclear. The whereabouts of other ancient paintings brought into Korea are also unclear. Moreover, even if the prosecution finds these paintings, whether they will be returned to Japan is unknown.

If the current owner of the painting knew at the time of the purchase that it was stolen, the painting will be confiscated according to the criminal law for receiving stolen goods, and it can be sent back to its original owner, Japan. Nonetheless, if the current owner bought the ancient painting, perceiving it as a normal good and at an appropriate price from an antique dealer, it will conform to the standards of a “bona-fide acquisition” under civil law, and ownership will be protected.

Sang-Rok Lee myzodan@donga.com