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Art collection from late Samsung chairman draws crowds to new exhibition in Seoul

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Art collection from late Samsung chairman draws crowds to new exhibition in Seoul
Visitors view the painting "Bull" by Lee Jung-seob at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, April 29 (UPI) -- One year after the enormous art collection of late Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee was donated to South Korean museums, a new exhibition is sparking public interest in the masterpieces once owned by the country's richest tycoon.

The exhibit, called "A Collector's Invitation," opened Thursday at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. It features 355 selections from the more than 23,000 works bequeathed by Lee's heirs after his death, ranging from a 6th-century gilt bronze sculpture to groundbreaking 20th-century works by Korean artists.

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Highlights include the iconic Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang, an 18th-century ink and wash painting by Jeong Seon and paintings by modern Korean masters Kim Whanki, Lee Jung-seop and Park Soo-keun.

A series of public exhibitions of Lee Kun-hee's collection have driven public interest in Korean art, curators say. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

Also on display is The Water-Lily Pond by famed French Impressionist Claude Monet, a standout from Lee's extensive collection of Western art that also includes pieces by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.

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The exhibit is meant to "ruminate on the philosophy of Lee Kun-hee as reflected in his act of collecting cultural heritage and objects of art across time and genre and donating them," Min Byoung-chan, director general of the National Museum of Korea, said in a statement.

The Samsung chairman, who oversaw the company's rise from a maker of cheap electronics to a global powerhouse, died in 2020 at age 78.

There was heavy speculation after his death about the future of his collection, which was estimated to be worth roughly $1.7 billion. Lee's heirs decided to bequeath the entire trove to two Seoul museums as well as a smaller number of works to five regional galleries.

Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

The "donation of the century," as the National Museum of Korea calls it, spans the prehistoric period to the 21st century and includes books, furniture, metalcrafts and calligraphic works alongside sculpture and paintings.

The family also announced at the time that it would have to pay the largest inheritance tax in South Korean history on Lee's estate -- about $10.8 billion.

The collection, which first went on display at a pair of exhibitions last July, has sparked a boom in interest in Korean art among the public, National Museum of Korea curator Lee Jae-ho told UPI at a press preview of the exhibition this week.

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"People didn't know as much about the collection in the past," Lee said. "Thanks to this bequest, there's been an expanded opportunity for Korean audiences to experience the work. It's driving interest in Korean art and culture in general."

Tickets for the exhibition are already sold out until June, the National Museum said.

"A Collector's Invitation" will run until August 28 and will then move to the Gwangju National Museum, where it is scheduled to open on October 4.

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