The Los Angeles County Museum of Art Restituted Four Buddhist Paintings Looted by Americans During the Korean War

The paintings were taken by American soldiers at the end of the Korean War.

Conservators working on the Yeongsanhoesangdoat LACMA in March 2012. Courtesy of LACMA.
Conservators working on the Yeongsanhoesangdoat LACMA in March 2012. Courtesy of LACMA.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has quietly restituted four Buddhist paintings to South Korea. 

The group of works returned last week include the 13-foot-tall painting Yeongsanhoesangdo, which depicts the Shakyamuni Buddha, as well as three “Siwangdo,” or narrative paintings, depicting the Kings of Hell. The artworks were housed in a temple in northeastern South Korea before being looted by Americans during the Korean War in the early 1950s. 

Museum director Michael Govan, as well as two curators in the museum’s Korean art department, Stephen Little and Virginia Moon, worked with the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism to return the works.

<i>Yeongsanhoesangdo</i> installed in LACMA's Korean Art galleries in 2012.

Yeongsanhoesangdo installed in LACMA’s Korean art galleries in 2012.

The Korean order first contacted the LA museum in 2015, seeking information about the provenance of several paintings in its collection that were believed to have been stolen from Buddhist temples, according to a blog post written by Little and Moon. Later, the order provided evidence that the now-restituted paintings, which were acquired in 1998 from a woman who found them in the attic of her son’s house, had indeed been taken by Americans in 1954.

The artworks were commissioned for the Sinheung Temple on Mount Seorak in Sokcho, Gangwon Province, in the 18th century. After visiting the site and consulting with photographs taken by US army and marine personnel at different times during that year, the curators confirmed the theft. They recommended to the museum’s board that the Buddhist artworks be deaccessioned and returned to the temple. 

LACMA Director Michael Govan and Venerable Monk Jeong-hyun a ceremony for the restitution of a Buddhist artwork in Seoul, Korea, 2017. Courtesy of LACMA.

LACMA Director Michael Govan and Venerable Monk Jeong-hyun a ceremony for the restitution of a Buddhist artwork in Seoul, Korea, 2017. Courtesy of LACMA.

“We are pleased to report that these paintings will be returned to Korea in July, and reinstalled at Sinheungsa in Gangwon Province in a special ceremony in August 2020,” the curators wrote in their post.

The museum previously restituted a “Siwangdo” painting to the Jogye Order in Seoul in 2017

“If it were not for LACMA’s affection for Korean cultural properties and its relevant preservation efforts, the Preaching Sakyamuni Buddha would not have been fully preserved until now,” the Jogye Order said in a statement.

“As LACMA curators we are delighted that these sacred Buddhist paintings will soon be returning to their proper home,” wrote Little and Moon.


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