In a multimillion-dollar move that establishes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a stronghold of Korean art, officials Wednesday announced the acquisition of 250 works spanning 2,000 years of Korean history.
The ceramics, paintings, textiles, furniture, bronze statuary and gold jewelry are a combined sale and gift from Robert W. Moore, a Los Angeles-based collector and dealer. Museum officials declined to reveal the amount paid to Moore or the market value of the collection, but Korean art has become a hot item on the auction scene in the past decade, with collectors paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for special pieces and $1 million or more for extremely rare, top-quality items.
The museum has pursued the collection for six years. George Kuwayama, the former head of Far Eastern art at LACMA who ended his 37-year tenure in 1996, launched an effort in 1993 to raise $5 million to buy 100 works from Moore. After Kuwayama's departure, his successor, J. Keith Wilson, continued the courtship.
Wednesday's announcement furthers the museum's efforts to make its collections relevant to the community. In 1997 the institution acquired 1,800 pieces of Mexican art from collector-dealers Bernard and Edith Lewin, instantly raising LACMA's profile in the field.
The Moore collection gives a major boost to the museum's Korean holdings, which consisted of about 75 objects and 800 pottery shards from historic kiln sites, used to identify and date Korean ceramics.
Among the Moore items LACMA acquired are a wide range of devotional, ritual and everyday objects, including Buddhist sculpture, decorated ceramics, earthenware jars and a bronze mirror that may have been used to cast out evil spirits. Among the highlights are rare screen paintings, portraits of Korean officials meticulously painted on scrolls, a lacquered box inlaid with mother of pearl dragons and two pairs of gold earrings with leaf-shaped pendants.
The Moore collection--about half of which goes on display today in new galleries in the Ahmanson Building--is the most visible aspect of a much larger Korean art initiative, according to Andrea Rich, president and director of the museum. The goal is to build the finest Korean art collection outside Asia, develop partnerships with educational institutions and Korean organizations, promote scholarship and reach out to the local Korean community, she said.
As part of the initiative, the museum and UCLA have jointly hired Burglind Jungmann, a German scholar of Korean art. While serving as the museum's first curator of Korean art, she will also launch the nation's first doctoral program in Korean art history at UCLA.
The museum has entered into partnerships with the Korea Foundation in Seoul, which will serve as a liaison between LACMA and the Korean government and scholars; the National Museum of Korea, also in Seoul, which has loaned artworks to the Los Angeles museum and will continue to do so; and the Asia Society in New York, which is developing educational programs for LACMA.
"We are thrilled that we have been able to do all this, with the collection as the cornerstone," Rich said. "For an institution strategically placed on the Pacific Rim with deep investments in Asian art--in our Chinese, Japanese and South Asian collections--the Korean piece ties our collections together in a very meaningful way and really makes us a world center for Korean art. And that relates to our physical location, our surrounding community, our academic relations with UCLA and the study of Korean art history that is being developed there."
America's museums are not rich in Korean art, so LACMA's acquisition lays a foundation to place it among the major players, which include the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, with 1,250 Korean works; the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, with 600 pieces; and the Cleveland Museum of Art, with more than 400 works.
Emily Sano, director of the Asian Art Museum, hailed LACMA's acquisition. "It is certainly something that L.A. can be proud of, to get a body of material like that in one fell swoop," she said.
Moore has been buying and selling Korean art for 40 years and said that finding a public home for most of his pieces is the highlight of his career. "Secretly, every collector would like to show off his collection. It acknowledges your effort," he said.
LACMA's new commitment to Korean art places the museum "in the forefront of a burgeoning field," Far Eastern art chief Wilson said. "What excites me most is that we now have the basis for writing the history of Korean art."
Wilson suggested two reasons for the dearth of Korean art in museums outside Asia: "One is the surviving material culture of Korea is relatively small, both because they didn't bury people with riches, like in China, and because Korea has suffered more invasions and more plundering than virtually any other country in Asia.
"The other reason is that Westerners were not exposed, through colonialism and economic interests, to Korean culture as we were exposed to other cultures in Asia. Westerners first became interested in Korean art through the Korean War and then the Peace Corps in the '60s, which took a lot of young American intellectuals to Korea. So it's a very young field."
Over time, Wilson expects Korea to gain as strong a presence in American minds as Japan and China. "I have always been reluctant to pigeonhole the different artistic traditions of Asia," he said. "I think that a lot of people who know very little about Korea and may not be Korean themselves will find the Korean art in our new galleries to be very inspiring. At least that's my hope."
In celebration of the Korean art initiative, a Festival of Korea is set for Sunday, noon to 4:30 p.m., at the museum. Gallery tours, classical Korean music and dance, storytelling, a tea ceremony and art-making activities will be featured.
Rare Korean Ceramics To Be Auctioned
The 180 pieces, ranging from large storage jars to small accessories from the scholar's table - such as ink pots, water droppers and brush pots - are on view at Christie's, 502 Park Ave., Oct. 11-15. They represent 30 years of collecting by Moore, a Los Angeles automobile salesman turned art dealer, and include early wares from the Bronze Age to the Silla kingdom (57 B.C. to 935 A.D.), Koryo celadons (918-1392) and stoneware from the Yi dynasty (1392-1910).
Ceramics is only a small portion of Moore's collection of Korean art, which covers all periods and all mediums, and it is the only portion he is selling. The collection as a whole is noted for its breadth and variety, and Moore has loaned many pieces to museum exhibitions.
Moore said in a telephone interview that he was a collector of antiques before he spent a year in the Army in Korea. "When I returned from Korea in 1955, I went into the automobile business because I could work six hours a day and spend the rest of my time looking for antiques," he said.
But his service in Korea was not what piqued his interest in collecting that country's art, Moore said. He decided to specialize in the area because there were few collectors of Korean art, and therefore the pieces were more reasonably priced than Chinese or Japanese art.
Korean pieces of high quality are difficult to find. The utilitarian nature of the pottery is evident in the wear and damage on nearly every piece. The pieces were used and discarded - not treated as fragile objects of art. Moore said he bought most of his pieces in the United States, mainly from the children of missionaries, travelers and military families that had spent time in the Far East.
Twelve years ago, Moore, 55, became a private, full-time dealer in Asian art. He said he is selling his ceramics because the 180-piece collection is large and difficult to display, and because prices have escalated in the last few years, making it difficult and expensive to get insurance. "My wife keeps reminding me that we live in an earthquake zone, and we could lose it all," Moore said.
The collection is expected to bring about a quarter of a million dollars.
The sale of the Moore collection - which is one of only two known private collections of Korean ceramics of any size in America - has created a great deal of interest in collecting and museum circles worldwide. Korean
collectors will be bidding on pieces of their heritage, and they are expected to be competing mainly against a few Japanese collectors and some American museums.
The highlight of the collection is an openwork porcelain plant or floral stand from the late 17th or early 18th century, decorated in underglaze blue with a design of a five-toed Imperial dragon chasing a flaming pearl. It is expected to bring $25,000 to $35,000.
An 18th-century blue and white jar, made for the Confucian upper classes, reflects in its boldness of shape and lack of technical refinement the native qualities of all Korean ceramics. Its bulbous shoulder and tapering waist is a typical shape of the period, as is its decoration in watery cobalt blue of four-toed dragons prancing among clouds. It is expected to bring $18,000 to $25,000.
A rare bale-form wine bottle made of punch'ong stoneware, decorated with freely drawn abstract scroll designs in underglaze iron red on a vertically scored white slip body, is expected to bring $15,000 to $20,000. This duffel- shaped container for liquids, a unique Korean design, can stand on either end or on its base.
Punch'ong is an abbreviation of the Korean term describing the technique for decorating stoneware with underglaze slip (clay with the consistency of cream). The white slip is brushed onto the stoneware, leaving pools, drips and bare areas that give texture to the surface. A number of examples of punch'ong ware, produced during the 15th and 16th centuries, are included in the sale.
A Koryo celadon wine cup and stand, decorated with an incised chrysanthemum on the outside, is expected to fetch $10,000 to $15,000. Korean ceramic achievements have been largely overshadowed in the West by Chinese and Japanese wares, which have been exported since the 18th century. In Asia, Korean ceramics have been prized since the 12th century, when Chinese connoisseurs perceived the charm and serenity of the celadons, which reached a high level of refinement under the Koryo kings (10th to 13th century).