Museum Security Network

Korea: Scandal Highlights Shadowy World of Art Forgery

“The Washing Place,” left, by the late Park Su-geun sold for 4.5 billion won at the Seoul Auction in May 2007, but is now embroiled in a forgery scandal. Another painting by Park, titled “Mothers Preparing Rice Cakes,” also stirred up a forgery allegation when it was donated to a local hospital. / Yonhap

By Michael Ha
Staff Reporter

A painting by the late Park Su-geun (1914-1965), one of the most beloved Korean painters from the 20th century, is again at the center of an art forgery scandal.

Local media reported last month that the highly valued work that an art dealer donated to Yonsei University’s Medical Center may turn out to be a fake.

The donated painting, titled “Mothers Preparing Rice Cakes,” was thought to be worth 7 billion won. But reports soon followed that the work had failed a previous authentication process and that one appraisal group, the International Art and Science Institute in Korea, had evaluated the artwork a few years ago and even called it a low-quality, unlicensed duplicate.

The controversy has created a quandary for the hospital staff, which had been planning to display it in a main lobby. This month, the Yonsei University Health System told reporters that “the donor strongly believes the painting is genuine. We think this controversy started because of the potentially high value of the donated artwork. We will go ahead with an addition appraisal procedure.”

Park’s Artwork Embroiled In Scandal

All around the world, allegations of forgery are never far away from famous artworks with high commercial value. In Korea, Park’s work in particular has been the subject of intense scrutiny and scandals that have jolted the domestic art world in recent years.

Earlier last year, “The Washing Place,” a well-known painting by Park that sold for 4.5 billion won at the Seoul Auction in May 2007, became fodder for an art forgery scandal. The painting, which depicts a group of women by a stream washing clothes ― a typical scene from rural villages in the past ― remains the most expensive artwork ever sold in Korea.

But critics continue to question the painting’s authenticity. The Seoul Auction and the Korean Art Appraiser’s Association say they stand by the painting, noting that the artwork passed a series of rigorous appraisal processes. But several senior art historians and professors reportedly remain convinced that it is a classic case of forgery, according to reports.

The controversy is now in the process of going through legal proceedings, and a court-appointed group of appraisers is expected to re-evaluate “The Washing Place” sometime early this year.

Target for Forgers

When media reports look at why Park’s paintings are popular targets for forgers, one obvious answer is that he enjoys broad recognition and affection among the Korean public. As a matter of fact, no serious history of modern and contemporary Korean art can be written without mentioning his work. Many of his paintings routinely fetch upwards of hundreds of millions of won at art auctions.

Park’s appeal is partly derived from the popular taste depicted in his works. Park, who had no formal training in art, used an unsophisticated and candid style and lyrically captured scenes from the daily life of average Korean people, who lived through exceptional hardships during the mid-20th century.

Adding to the allure is the fact that there are only a limited number of Park’s oil paintings that are still available in the market.

Another reason forgers may be drawn to Park’s paintings is his primary stylistic tendencies. Some art experts note that authenticating Park’s work can be especially painstaking because of his style, which favors unsophisticated gray-and-white line depiction, earthy colors and crude textures.

`Korean Art Laundering’

Art forgeries involving Park’s paintings are also reportedly taking place in the overseas art world. A local television documentary by SBS reported last month that Christie’s, a leading U.S. auctioneering firm, was duped by forged artworks that were supposedly painted by the late Park.

The documentary quoted a manager in charge of appraisal and sales of Korean art as saying that “the situation has been getting more difficult for the past two years, when forged Park Su-geun paintings started to come in. We even had to return two forged paintings.”

According to the report, there are now cases of “Korean art laundering,” where a fake artwork makes its way from Korea onto overseas markets and is bought by major auctioneering firms. It then makes its way back to the Korean art market with a seal of approval from leading art auctioneers and is resold to unsuspecting domestic art collectors at high prices.

Artwork as Investments

Reports say that until recently, speculations about art forgery have generally been confined to private conversations among collectors during art auctions ― it was not a topic of discussion for the public.

But this shady practice of art forgery has been attracting a great deal of media attention in Korea recently. This may be because Korean investors are putting more of their money in artwork as a way to divest from risky stocks and volatile real estate holdings. Observers say prices of artwork by Korea’s “blue-chip artists,” including Park, have been going through the roof at recent auctions. Investors are increasingly purchasing these paintings with no actual expertise in art, according to reports.

Forgers Aided by Digital Cameras

But while Park’s paintings have been the subject of forgery scandals, they are far from being alone.

Recent reports say forging techniques have been steadily advancing with the aid of computers and digital cameras, turning out fake paintings that are so close to the genuine article that even the artist who painted the original picture can’t tell them apart. And a study by the Korean Galleries Association says that a substantial share of artwork at commercial galleries may in fact be duplicates.

The group says there are dozens of expert forgers working to imitate high-value paintings. It says many of these fakes are high quality since of some of the forgers themselves had served apprenticeships under the painters whose artwork they are duplicating.

Debate Over‘The Washing Place

As for Park’s 4.5 billion won painting, the court proceeding will consider several aspects of the work to determine whether it is genuine or a worthless piece of paper, according to Korean media reports.

The court will employ a team of analysts and a scientific appraisal process to examine whether the pigments used in the painting matches those from mid- 20th century Korea. The court will also review past authentication processes to trace back the painting’s provenance.

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