“I have a list of foreigners who bought Korean cultural heritages over 20 years from 1930. You can have the list if it is needed for research,” said Robert Matielli (age 97), who lived in Korea for 30 years since 1958, reached out to the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation earlier this year. Matielli, who lives in Oregon in the U.S., invited researchers of the Foundation to his home. He wanted to have 1,946 pieces of Korean cultural heritage studied.
The research was under full swing in June when senior researcher Kim Ryun-yong (age 38) at the Research Investigation Team visited Matielli’s house for the last time. Matielli pulled him aside and told him he had something he had not shown anyone else. He showed Kim a notebook, which held a list of customers at an antique art store called “Samuel Lee Antique Art Store” in central Seoul from 1936 to 1958. The list was full of cultural items and names of customers that purchased Korean cultural artifacts.
“I knew it was something real as soon as I saw the list. The list showed how and when Korean cultural artifacts were exported from the country,” Kim said. “When I told Matielli that this could be an important historical source to track overseas cultural artifacts, he immediately said he wanted to donate it to Korea.”
The foundation said Matielli donated 60 historical sources, including the customer list, which held important information on cultural artifacts. The list of customers of the store run by Samuel Lee held more than 670 commercial transactions of Korean artifacts. “Once we study the list, we will be able to identify channels in which the cultural artifacts were exported,” Kim said. “This will greatly help research and retrieve the cultural heritages.”
Some of the list included well-known figures such as Helen Keller (1880-1968), the renowned social welfare activist. Keller visited Korea to attend a lecture and give a speech in July 1937. Records showed that she purchased a writing table at the art antique store.
Matielli, who cares for Korean cultural heritages, also returned a five Buddha painting of the Joseon Dynasty created in 1725 to Korea in 2016. He had purchased the painting in an antique shop in Jongno in 1970. He had initially tried to donate the painting to the Portland Museum in 2014. Still, he became aware that the painting had been owned by Songgwang Temple of Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, and donated it to the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.