Last month, three South Korean art history scholars visited the museum to inspect our collection of Korean art. What they found amazed them.

Six months ago, the South Korean government’s Korean Cultural Heritage Administration informed the museum’s Asian Art Department about a program to support Korean art in foreign museums. The Honolulu Museum of Art applied for a grant to fund conservation of Korean artwork in our collection.

“It was a great opportunity for us because there are so few people who do Korean painting conservation in the U.S.,” says Shawn Eichman, curator of Asian art at the Honolulu Museum of Art. “the Korean government is unique among Asian governments in its emphasis on supporting Korean art outside of Korea. They are focused on introducing Korean art on the international stage. They are the only government in Asia putting so much effort into building international partnerships to promote their art.”

Eichman and Stephan Salel, the Robert F. Lange Foundation assistant curator of Japanese art at the museum, did a preliminary survey of the museum’s Korean paintings and found that more than half of them were in need of conservation. “We sent the Cultural Heritage Administration a list of about 40 paintings and they met with scholars, looked over photos, and determined that our collection was worth having the scholars come to Honolulu to conduct a survey,” says Eichman.

From Jan. 21 to 24, professor Chung Woo Thak of Dongguk University, professor Park Chi-sun of Yongin University, and professor Insoo Cho of the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration were in our Asian art vault with Eichman and Salel. (Pictured above, Prof. Chung Woo Thak discusses an artwork with Shawn Eichman and Stephen Salel.)

The group had a list ready of non-Korean works that they wanted to see, such as Ming dynasty paintings, “but when they saw what we had, they never left the basement,” says Eichman. “They spent the whole time examining the paintings, from the minute we opened until we closed.”

Eichman and Salel prepared 69 works for the scholars to look at. Among them were 20 paintings that were pulled from the Richard Lane Collection, which the museum purchased in 2003. Then Honolulu Museum of Art bought the entire lot, much of which naysayers claimed was a jumble of junk, for $26,000. The museum has been slowly going through the uncatalogued collection, and there remain many works to be indentified.

It is from those 20 paintings that the visiting scholars found “one of the most exciting discoveries,” says Eichman. “They spent a long time looking at it and talking amongst themselves. Then the came to me and Stephen and said, ‘This is very, very important.’ They were so excited that they suggested that we change the grant so that the painting could be conserved as soon as possible.”

The prize discovery.

The prize discovery.

The work (pictured above) is dated to 1586 and depicts an official gathering of Korean scholars. It is an example of a type of painting common in the 16th century, but few of these types of work survive today. “Korean paintings from 16th-century in general are rare because at the end of the 16th century, Korea was invaded by Japan, and the large majority of artworks were destroyed or taken back to Japan,” explains Eichman.

The scholars pinpointed another 20 works worthy of conservation, as part of the grant project.

“They didn’t expect to find such a significant collection of paintings in a museum in Honolulu,” says Eichman. “They said that on their return to Korea, they would emphasize to the government that they should look beyond large museums famed for their Asian collections—like the Metropolitan Museum of Art—to others like ours, where there are still things to be found. It’s rare to make a discovery of a painting no one knew about. And to discover 21 paintings of historic, cultural and artistic significance was stunning for them.”

The next step: The museum will send two priority works to a top-level conservation studio in South Korea. KCHA officials were excited to hear about the discoveries. “We’ve sent them photographs and a request to change the grant. If approved, we’ll send the paintings in the next month and hope to have them conserved by the end of the year,” says Eichman.

While the Honolulu Museum of Art is known for having one of the world’s great collections of Korean ceramics, up to now Korean paintings have never been adequately represented in the museum’s galleries. “Even though we’ve had more than 90 Korean paintings in storage, more than half of those cannot be displayed without first undergoing conservation,” says Eichman. “Now, through this grant, we anticipate we’ll have twice as many paintings to display. And these are works that are of such historic significance, that if they were in Korea they would be considered national treasures.”

For a taste of what Eichman and Salel are talking about, head to the Korean Gallery now. “We do have a couple of important works that we have been able to display,” says Salel. “There is one hanging scroll the visiting group is interested in having conserved. It’s on view right now.”

Unidentified artist
Inscription by Yun Anseong (1542-1615)

Scholarly Gathering
Korean, Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1897), 1586
Hanging scroll, ink on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003
(TD 2014-6-001)