Works From the Fabled Collection of Late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee Are Finally on Public View in South Korea

This week, the Korean public got its first chance to see a smattering of artworks from the multi-billion-dollar collection amassed by the late Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee. 

Two shows dedicated to Lee’s former possessions went on view at major venues in Seoul Wednesday, July 21. The events marked the first time that any pieces from his collection have gone on public display since being conferred to two institutions in April. 

The National Museum of Korea unveiled a presentation of historical artifacts from the Lee collection, including 28 pieces designated by the state as National Treasures. The 77 objects on view represent just a fraction of the more than 21,600 items donated to the institution by Lee’s heirs. 

Meanwhile, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) opened an exhibition of 58 Modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures by 34 Korean artists selected from the almost 1,500 artworks gifted from the Lee collection. 

Jeong Seon, <i>Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang</i> (1751). Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.

Jeong Seon, Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang (1751). Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.

“We selected items that have artistic and historic value for this exhibition,” National Museum curator Lee Soo-kyung said during a press preview, according to the Korea Herald. “Our main purpose is to show the characteristics of Lee Kun-hee’s collection.”

On view in the two-month-long National Museum exhibition are rare examples of paintings, porcelain, metal statues, and wooden furniture dating from the prehistoric era to the early 20th century. The highlight of the group is Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang, a 1751 landscape painting by Joseon-period artist Jeong Seo. It’s thought to be the Samsung chairman’s first major art purchase.

“A large part of the 1,488 artworks donated to our museum from Lee’s collection is Modern art, which our museum has a shortage of,” Park Mi-hwa, curator of the MMCA exhibition, explained in a preview of that institution’s show.

“Accordingly, for the first of our special exhibitions featuring the donated Lee collection, we selected Modern art pieces by Korea’s most popular artists.” Among those represented in the exhibition are landscape painter Byeon Gwansik, abstractionist Kim Whanki, and sculptor Kwon Jinkyu.

The historic gifts to the two museums this spring ended a months’-long debate about the fate of the more than 23,000 works of art following Lee’s death in October of 2020.

Media outlets had previously speculated that Lee’s heirs, including his son Lee Jae-yong and widow Hong Ra-hee, might sell some of the prized artworks to international buyers in order to cover the $11 billion (₩12.5 trillion) inheritance tax bill on the $20 billion (₩ 22 trillion) fortune the chairman left behind.

Ultimately, the heirs chose to keep the collection in the country, distributing its pieces among state institutions, including the National Museum, MMCA, and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.

But the artworks, owned by the state, won’t stay in these institutions for long. Earlier this month, the South Korean minister of culture, sports, and tourism, announced plans to build a new museum solely dedicated to the Lee collection. 

Reservations to see the National Museum show are booked for the next month, a spokesperson for the museum told the Herald.

Tickets to see the MMCA show aren’t quite as hard to get. There, reservations are unavailable through early August, per Korea JoongAng Daily

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Rosie Lee Tompkins’s Quilts Gave Critic Roberta Smith a ‘New Standard’ to Measure Contemporary Art. What Happens to Her Legacy Now?

Improvisational quilter Rosie Lee Tompkins was virtually unknown by the general public during her lifetime—an anonymity she not only welcomed, but carefully cultivated. Now, with two new Bay Area shows at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, the virtuosic talent likely has more work on view at one time than ever before. 

There’s just one catch—and it’s one that makes growing the public’s understanding of Tompkins’s work, not to mention her market, a unique challenge. The artist had a single primary patron who assembled a large collection of her work—and donated it en masse to one museum. How do you grow a legacy, and a collector base, when an oeuvre is so centralized?

Tompkins, whose real name was Effie Mae Howard (the pseudonym was a privacy safeguard), was born in 1936 to a many-membered sharecropping family in southeastern Arkansas. Though she learned to quilt at an early age, it wasn’t until her mid-40s, working as a nurse in the Northern California town of Richmond, that she embraced the craft as more than a hobby.  

She would, for the next 25-plus years until her death in 2006, churn out hundreds of quilts, many intricate enough in their control of color and jazzy sense of composition to draw comparisons to the great abstractionists of the modern era.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, <i>Untitled</i> (c. 2002). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled (c. 2002). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

“Tompkins’s work, I came to realize, was one of the century’s major artistic accomplishments, giving quilt-making a radical new articulation and emotional urgency,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith recently wrote of her experience seeing Tompkins’s work for the first time in 1997. “I felt I had been given a new standard against which to measure contemporary art.”

This snippet was one of many glowing passages in Smith’s 4,300-word review of Tompkins’s “triumphal retrospective” currently installed at BAMPFA. (The museum is currently closed due to California’s public-health protocols; it’s expected to reopen in the spring.) The article is one of the most rapturous pieces of criticism you may ever read. And she’s not the only one to consider Tompkins in such rarified air.

The demand for Tompkins’s work is as great as it’s ever been, but the supply is all but non-existent. That’s because her legacy grew late and fast; by the time her name was known by a larger audience, the majority of her work had been scooped up by a single enthusiastic collector named Eli Leon. He bought the works directly from Tompkins for what some estimate may have been a few thousand dollars each. 

So enthralled with Tompkins’s work was the collector that he asked for as much as $50,000 per piece from anyone who wanted to buy one from him—a whopping figure for an artist who was, at the time, a relatively unknown quantity. Because of this, Leon sold few. Before passing away in 2018, he arranged for his collection of quilts—including some 500 pieces by Tompkins—to be bequeathed to BAMPFA

Rosie Lee Tompkins, <i>Untitled</i> (date unknown). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled (date unknown). Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Today, very few of the artist’s pieces are in private hands, and none have ever appeared at auction, according to Midnight Publishing Group’s Price Database. They’ve only appeared in galleries a handful of times—which is what makes the current show of Tompkins’s work at Anthony Meier in San Francisco so noteworthy.

Eleven Tompkins quilts make up the exhibition, which Meier acquired directly from Tompkins’s family. (Meier says he doesn’t know how many more are out there, but he doubts there are any major untapped troves.) The price for each one hovers around the mid-to-high five-figure mark, the gallerist tells Midnight Publishing Group News, making Leon’s once-astronomical asks now seem reasonable. 

The show hasn’t sold out yet, but Meier says interest is coming from a much broader range of people than the gallery typically attracts. 

“If you combine the kind of praise that she has been accorded by people like Roberta Smith, with the incredibly limited supply and the kind of self-evident beauty of the work—it’s got three huge things going through it,” says Lawrence Rinder, BAMPFA’s longtime director and chief curator who organized the show. (Rinder retired in 2019.) “I’ve never been involved in the art market, thank goodness, but my gut feeling is that they’re worth a lot of money.” 

Because of that, Rinder says, the museum’s one-of-a-kind collection comes with a great deal of responsibility—a responsibility to shepherd Tompkins’s legacy, to both protect her life’s work and share it with as many people as possible. (Tompkins does not have a formal estate, as many late artists do.) What’s the prudent way to proceed?

Installation view of "Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective" at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2020-21. Courtesy of BAMPFA.

Installation view of “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective” at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2020-21. Courtesy of BAMPFA.

This is a very, very important question for the museum right now,” the former director explains.

Rinder sees two possible directions in which the institution could go. One would be to hold onto all of Tompkins’s pieces and establish a research center dedicated to the artist, allowing scholars the opportunity to study the collection as a whole body of work even if it means limiting the public’s access to it. The other would be to strategically disperse the collection to other museums—be it through sale, long-term loan, or gift—in an effort to make it widely accessible, if decentralized. 

When asked which direction he would take, were he not retired, Rinder says this is an instance where you can “have your cake and eat it too.” 

“There are so many [of Tompkins’s artworks in the collection] that you could keep a core group and send the others out into the world. That way you’d be able to accomplish both things,” he says. “That’s what I would do.”

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