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Rethinking the Regulation of Overseas Sales of 50+ Year Old Korean Masterpieces

Exhibition view of “Whanki Kim: A Dot A Sky.” Whanki Museum, Seoul.

Government policies have a significant impact on the art world.

Huh Won-soon, an editorial writer for The Korean Economic Daily, discussed the pros and cons of the Cultural Heritage Protection Act in an article. Given the current era where Korean culture, including contemporary Korean art, is gaining international recognition, it’s worth examining the role of such policies in promoting Korean art.

The Cultural Heritage Protection Act (Articles 39 and 60), managed by the Cultural Heritage Administration, was established in 1962. According to this law, exporting artworks over 50 years old is restricted. This includes works by renowned figures in Korean contemporary art with international recognition, such as Whanki Kim, Lee Jung Seob, and Chang Ucchin.

The fundamental purpose of this law is to protect ‘designated cultural properties’ such as national treasures and cultural relics, which also encompass ‘ordinary cultural properties’ like paintings and sculptures.

Through such legal regulations, indiscriminate overseas exports of cultural properties with significant historical, academic, and artistic value are prevented, safeguarding the nation’s assets and curbing the outflow of foreign currency. However, the regulation restricting the export of cultural properties older than 50 years is becoming an obstacle for Korean contemporary art to expand globally.

These artworks can be exported for temporary exhibitions in places like museums, but they cannot be submitted for overseas art fairs or auctions, and even if purchased within Korea, they cannot be taken abroad.

These regulations significantly affect Korean galleries when participating in international art fairs. According to Huh, the Cultural Heritage Protection Act should be amended to be more in line with the multifaceted situations of the contemporary world since it was established in an era when international travel was not as prevalent. The 50-year criteria are also ambiguous. Works by the same artist may have different export regulations, where some can be taken abroad while others cannot.

In the rapidly expanding international art market, these regulations pose a significant barrier to the globalization of Korean art. They hinder domestic art from being traded overseas, becoming a roadblock for talented Korean artists seeking international recognition and opportunities to promote Korean art on a global stage.

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