The Kansong Art Museum in South Korea is auctioning a gilt bronze portable shrine of a Buddha recognized as a "national treasure." (all images screenshot from K Auction's website)

In South Korea, one cash-strapped museum is about to auction off state-designated “national treasures” from its collection to alleviate its financial stress. Though the move appears to be legal under South Korean law, this is the first time in the country’s history that cultural properties of this significance are offered for sale in an auction.

The Kansong Art Museum in Seoul, South Korea’s oldest private art institution, announced last week that it will bring two prized ancient artifacts from its collection for sale next Thursday, January 27. The pieces will hit the block at K Auction, one of the country’s largest auction houses.

The two artifacts slated for auction are a gilt bronze portable shrine of a Buddha triad dated to between the 11th and 12th centuries and a 6th-century gilt bronze standing Buddha triad with an inscription of “Gyemi Year.” The first, a miniature version of a Buddhist shrine housing a statue of Buddha, comes with an asking price of 28 billion South Korean won to 40 billion won (~$23.6-$33.7 million). The second, a seven-inch-tall Buddha bronze believed to have been carried by Buddhists for spiritual protection, is estimated at 3.2 billion won to 45 billion won (~$27-$37.7 million). Combined, they are expected to shatter previous records for the sale of ancient artifacts in the country.

A 6th-century gilt bronze standing Buddha triad with an inscription of “Gyemi Year” for sale on K Auction’s website.

On K Auction’s website, the two national treasures are featured as part of a large live sale that also includes dozens of works by modern and contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, Ai Weiwei, and others.

This is not the first time that the Kansong Art Museum offers ancient artifacts from its collection for sale. In 2020, it deaccessioned two other Buddhist artifacts, but the auction flopped due to a lack of bidders. The National Museum of Korea eventually stepped up to buy the two pieces for a total of 3 billion won (~$25.2 million).

When asked if it would bid again in the upcoming auction, the National Museum told the Korea Herald that it might consider doing so if it deems the items appropriate. But it’s unclear how the state-funded museum would be able to afford the artifacts, given its annual acquisitions budget of just 4 billion won (~$33.6 million).

The Kansong Museum (known in Korea as the Gansong) was founded in 1938 by philanthropist Jeon Hyung-pil, who collected historic artifacts to prevent their removal from the country during the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910-1945.

In 2014, the Kansong fell into debt and has remained closed ever since. The museum has pushed its reopening dates several times, most recently announcing that it will open later in 2022 at the end of the construction of a new stage facility.

The Kansong Art and Culture Foundation, which runs the museum, has released a statement pleading with the Korean public “to please understand this was an indispensable decision, and a hard one to make, for the future of Kansong,” the Art Newspaper reported.

The foundation has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, leaving our inquiries about the intended use of the sale revenue unanswered.

There are about 350 state-recognized national treasures in South Korea, many of which are heritage sites. According to the Korea Herald, state-designated cultural properties are prohibited for sale overseas, but anyone can sell or buy them within the country as long as they are reported in advance to the Cultural Heritage Administration.

Desperate for cash, the Kansong has been exploring every possible avenue to generate income. Last year, it sold 100 non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of another national treasure in its collection to pay for operational costs. The NFTs featured a section of the Hunmin jeongeum, a 33-page guide to the Korean alphabet. They sold for about $87,000 each. It was another precedent set by the Kansong, marking the first time that a Korean national treasure was traded on the blockchain.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...