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Korean items auctioned in Oxford subject of investigation

July 07, 2010 - Artifacts that may have been illegally removed from an Asian palace 59 years ago and sold at Midwest Auction Galleries in Oxford Township just three months ago are the subject of a joint investigation by the United States and South Korean governments.

"This is definitely a first for me," said Jim Amato, who owns the auction house located at 665 N. Lapeer Rd.

A June 28 article in The Hankyoreh, an independent daily newspaper in South Korea, reported that the Asian nation's Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) was recently notified by the U.S. Embassy that artifacts assumed to be from the Joseon Dynasty were sold at the Oxford auction in April.

The Joseon Dynasty ruled over the Korean Peninsula from 1392 until the Japanese occupation in 1910. It was Korea's last ruling dynasty and it's cultural innovations and achievements continue to influence the country today.

All of the auction items, which consisted of 37 lots according to Amato, were part of the estate of the late Lionel Hayes, a sergeant in the 10th Marine Division, who reportedly obtained them from the Deoksugung Palace in Seoul during the Korean War in 1951. He got them after the invading North Korean and Chinese troops were pushed back by U.S. forces.

The items' origin was stated in both the Hankyoreh article and on the Midwest Auction Galleries website.

"You see it all the time," Amato said. "Thousands of soldiers brought back swords, guns, daggers, compasses, and sold them."

However, the items in Hayes' estate were very different from the souvenirs U.S. soldiers' typically took from dead or captured enemies.

Hayes' estate consisted of antique items.

According to Amato, together all of Hayes' lots sold for $68,465.

The item that fetched the most was a 17th century Chinese Jade twin-handled cup that sold for $10,000.

The Hankyoreh reported that according to Park Yeong-geun, head of the CHA's Heritage Promotion Bureau, Hayes' collection did contain "certain artifacts worth getting back."

One such item is a printing block used to create paper money during the late Joseon Dynasty.

"Hardly any of these remain, meaning that the block is of high historical value," according to the Hankyoreh article.

"That's what they say, I don't know what it is," Amato told this reporter. "It's all in Korean."

The on-line auction catalog describes the piece, which sold for $9,000, as an "exceptional inscribed Korean (solid) bronze plaque" that "appears to have something to do with the monetary system of South Korea."

According to the Hankyoreh, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the South Korean Embassy in the U.S. have launched a joint investigation.

The fact that there is an investigation was confirmed by ICE Spokesman Khaalid Walls, but that was all he could say.

"We won't really be able to comment beyond what you read there (in the newspaper)," Walls said. "There's no additional details at this time."

Amato said he was contacted by someone from the South Korean Embassy on April 9, the day before the auction, who asked him to pull the artifacts from the block.

"He called me at like 4 or 5 o'clock on the Friday night before the sale," he said. "To be honest with you, I didn't know what to think."

At first Amato thought it was a joke "because he was very difficult to understand." But when he realized the caller was on the level, Amato informed him it was too late.

Not only were items sold during a live auction April 10-11, others had been selling on-line for two-and-a-half weeks prior to the event, according to Amato.

Following the auction, Amato indicated he turned over a list of all the buyers to federal authorities and there's been "nothing more on our end."

"I haven't heard a thing," he said. "I've contacted them on two different occasions and in both instances, they told me they know nothing because they turned it over to the State Department in Washington D.C."

So, what are odds the South Korean government is going to recover any of the auction items?

"The Korean government has to prove ownership at one time," Amato said. "According to the guy at the Customs Department, the burden of proof is on them. They have to produce records or photographs of those items that show it was in their possession at the time of the war. It was a long time ago."

This incident hasn't deterred Amato from seeking out Asian items to auction.

"We're looking for more Chinese stuff to sell. We do very well with it," he said. "We're always looking for fine antiques and porcelains and jades."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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