A Former Samsung Chairman’s Multibillion-Dollar Art Collection May Be Donated to South Korea’s Museums, Avoiding an International Sell-Off

Cultural officials previously feared that the chairman’s heirs might sell the collection abroad to pay their inheritance tax.

Lee Kun-Hee. Photo: Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

It now appears as though the multibillion-dollar art collection amassed by the late head of the Samsung conglomerate will stay in South Korea—a development that’s sure to please cultural leaders across the country.

Lee Kun-hee, Samsung’s longtime chairman, left behind an estimated $19.6 billion (₩ 22 trillion) in assets when we died late last year at the age of 78, including some 12,000 works of art. Multimillion-dollar pieces by Monet, Picasso, and Warhol, as well as 30 works by Korean artists that have been declared National Treasures, were among those in the collection, which has been altogether valued at as much as $2.7 billion (₩3 trillion). (Reports differ on the total value of the collection.)

But along with these assets came a record $9.7 billion inheritance tax, and Korean media reports from earlier this year suggested that Lee’s heirs, including his son Lee Jae-yong and widow Hong Ra-hee, might sell the collection to international buyers in order to pay the taxes. (Under Korean law, artwork cannot be used to pay tax in kind.) 

The Seoul branch building of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), 2013. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images.

The Seoul branch building of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), 2013. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images.

But now, reports by Korean news outlets suggest that there’s another path besides dispersing the art internationally: At least half, and perhaps more, of the works will instead likely be donated to local museums—a move that square’s with Lee’s oft-stated goal of turning South Korea into a cultural powerhouse. 

An official at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, told Donga that the institution is in the final stages of securing a donation from the Samsung Foundation, an organization that has overseen the process. (A representative from the museum further clarified that “several options have been discussed with the donor,” but none “have been confirmed yet.”)

The outlet also reported that, under Korean law, Lee’s heirs may be eligible for a tax break if they donate the works to public institutions.

Meanwhile, Maeil Business Daily quoted an official from the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, which runs the National Museum, as saying, “We are discussing donation, but it is polite to wait for Samsung to announce it.”

It remains unclear how the artworks will be divided among the museums. But we may have a better idea soon: the heirs could announce their decision by April 30, the deadline for the first inheritance tax payment, according to reports.

A spokesperson from the Samsung Foundation did not respond to a request for additional information on the donation process.

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