Tuesday 26 November 2013

Nine Nineteenth Century Korean Seals, US 'War Booty' in Government Hands

Rick St. Hilaire has draw attention to the issue of the the legal basis of the US Government's seizure of some valuable Korean seals from the family of a deceased Marine who brought them back after doing military service in Korea (Cultural Property Lawyer Blog 'Korean Artifacts Seizure Prompts Question of Legal Authority ' Monday, November 25, 2013).  He suggests that "the legal authority justifying the seals' seizure remains unclear, requiring further explanation by ICE". The US serviceman had found the seals in 1950 lying in a ditch near the Deoksugung Palace, which had just been ransacked by Chinese and North Korean soldiers and instead of handing them in, took them home with him when he returned to the States. After his death, the family tried to flog them off. According to the November 20, 2013 ICE press release  ('HSI seizes 9 ancient Korean artifacts in Southern California'): 
In September, HSI Washington special agents received information from a Washington, D.C., based antiquities expert that a man residing in Escondido, Calif., had contacted them in an effort to find out if the seals were valuable.
Photos of the object were forwarded to Korea and the objects identified as Korean national property, which is illegal to transfer or export without the proper papers, which one presumes the family could not present. The objects were reportedly "seized pursuant to abandonment of property form and in violation of the Cultural Property Implementation Act", though it is not recorded whether or not the family agreed voluntarily to surrender the items when their legal status was explained. This might be suggested is the significance of the phrase used in the press release, stating that the: "seals were seized pursuant to [an] abandonment of property form ....". It may be that what is at the heart of the issue is imprecise phrasing of the press release trying to cast the ICE in a dynamic pro-active role, "seizing" something that had in fact been quietly surrendered by the family quite understandably not wanting to profit from something done by their deceased relative which may turn out to have been illegal or wrong.  US soldiers were not in Korea to loot its heritage.

The ICE press release cites:
the Korean National Property Act, enacted April 8, 1950 and
the Korean National Property Act-Enforcement Decree, enacted June 10, 1950.

Vignette: central building of Deoksugung palace, Seoul.

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