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Late Samsung chairman's art collection goes on display in Seoul

A viewer stands in front of Women and Jars by Lee Whanki during a preview of an exhibit that opened Wednesday of works from the collection of the late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
A viewer stands in front of Women and Jars by Lee Whanki during a preview of an exhibit that opened Wednesday of works from the collection of the late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, July 21 (UPI) -- Masterpieces from the enormous art collection of Lee Kun-hee, the late chairman of Samsung who was South Korea's richest man, went on public display Wednesday in Seoul for the first time since his heirs donated some 23,000 pieces to the country's museums.

Lee's family announced the donation in April, settling intense speculation over what would become of one of the world's largest private collections, a trove that includes works from top Korean artists as well as pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Claude Monet.

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The Samsung chairman, who oversaw the company's rise from a maker of cheap electronics to a global powerhouse, died in October at age 78.

A pair of exhibitions opened simultaneously Wednesday at two museums in Seoul: the National Museum of Korea, where art and artifacts from across a range of Korean history were featured, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which showed pieces from the early to mid-20th century by Korean masters such as Kim Whanki, Lee Jung-seob and Park Soo-keun.

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The National Museum of Korea received some 21,600 works from Lee's family, including treasures such as the 18th-century painting Clearing After Rain on Mt. Ingwang by Jeong Seon. Seventy-seven of the works are on display.

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The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art received 1,488 pieces and has placed 58 works in its current exhibition.

Tiffany Yun, deputy director of public relations for that museum, called the gift from Lee's estate "the donation of the century."

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"Being able to share these works with the public carries tremendous meaning," she said during a press preview of the exhibition Tuesday.

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art exhibition features some of South Korea's most noteworthy pieces, including Bull by Lee Jung-seob and Women and Jars by Kim Whanki, the largest canvas ever completed by the pioneering abstract artist.

"Continuing on from this exhibition, the MMCA will grant more opportunities for the public to enjoy the high-quality donated artworks and continue to expand the horizon of the research on art history by studying Lee's collection going forward," museum director Youn Bummo said in a statement.

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There was heavy interest after Lee's death about the future of his collection, estimated to be worth roughly $1.7 billion. In addition to the gifts to the two major Seoul museums, Lee's heirs also donated a smaller number of works to five regional museums, according to South Korea's culture ministry.

The family also announced in April that it would be paying the largest inheritance tax in South Korean history on Lee's estate -- about $10.8 billion.

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The art donation has not come without controversy, however.

South Korea's culture ministry announced earlier this month that it would construct a new facility to house the collection from Lee, and named two potential locations in central Seoul.

Other cities and provincial governments quickly complained about the plan, and a group of 677 art experts issued a statement criticizing the decision to keep all of the works in a single location.

The exhibitions come at a time when Lee Kun-hee's son and de facto leader of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, is in prison, serving a 30-month sentence for bribing former President Park Geun-hye. He also awaits the start of another trial on a range of criminal charges connected to the controversial 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates.

Business leaders have been lobbying for a presidential pardon of the 53-year-old Lee, citing the outsized importance of Samsung on the South Korean economy, a gesture public opinion also supports, according to recent polls.

Lee Kun-hee was convicted twice for white-collar crimes, in 1996 and 2008, but avoided jail time and received a presidential pardon, in a familiar scenario for South Korean business tycoons.

The National Museum exhibit will run until Sept. 26, while the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art show runs until March 13.

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Both museums plan to hold another show next April to mark the one-year anniversary of the donation. Parts of Lee's collection are also slated to appear at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in September 2022.

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