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Samsung Family Donates 23,000 Works to S. Korean Museums Amid $11 Billion Tax Bill

Samsung Family Donates 23,000 Works to S. Korean Museums Amid $11 Billion Tax Bill

The wait is over.

Today the family of Lee Kun-hee, the billionaire Samsung chieftain who died last October, began detailing his massive estate, the gargantuan tax they intend to pay on it, and their philanthropic plans, which include gifts of some 23,000 works from his art collection to South Korean museums and hundreds of millions of dollars to medical causes.

Samsung said in a press release on Wednesday morning that the family would pay more than 12 trillion Korean (about $10.8 billion) on the estate, which has been valued at around $20 billion. It is believed to be the most estate tax ever paid in the country, where the top rate can stretch above 50 percent. “It is our civic duty and responsibility to pay all taxes,” the Lee family said in a statement.

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More than 20,000 of the pieces being donated are traditional Korean works, which will go to the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. They include dozens of items designated as National Treasures by the South Korean government. In addition, more than 1,200 pieces of modern and contemporary art will go the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), which has four branches in the country.

The works going to the MMCA include pieces by European giants like Claude Monet (a water lily painting), Salvador Dalí, Paul Gauguin, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The museum has focused its collecting on Korean figures, so the gifts will international breadth to its holdings. The bequest also includes important 20th-century Korean artists like Kim Whanki and Lee Jung-seop.

The MMCA said that it will organize an exhibition highlighting selections from the gift in the latter half of 2021. Its working title is “Masterpieces of Lee Kun-hee’s Collection.” It is also planning touring shows for museums elsewhere in South Korea and around the world.

Lee Jung-seob's 1953 Bull, one of his most famous works, which is headed to the MMCA.

Lee Jung-seob’s 1953 Bull, one of his most famous works, which is headed to the MMCA.
COURTESY MMCA

It is not just the big-league museums that are benefiting. The Korea Herald reported that work will also go to the Daegu Art Museum, the Gwangju Museum of Art, the Jeonnam Museum of Art in the southern city of Gwangyang, the Park Soo Keun Museum in the northeastern province of Gangwon, and the Lee Jung Seop Art Gallery on Jeju island.

The Lee family had a deadline of six months to announce their plans, and in the run-up to the big announcement, there had been speculation that it might put art up auction to help cover the whopping tax bill, potentially sending major material out of the country. Some politicians and art professionals lobbied for a law that would have allowed art donations to state institutions to count toward taxes. That was not adopted, but the items marked for donation today will not be included in the final tax assessment. (Some reports have put the value of Lee’s art north of $2 billion.)

Not mentioned in today’s announcement, as the Yonhap News Agency noted, were major pieces by Alberto Giacometti, Mark Rothko, and Francis Bacon, which are in the collection of the Leeum, a Samsung-run museum in Seoul. Some press accounts had suggested those works were being appraised for possible donation. Today’s 23,000 figure was also larger than the 12,000 number often floated as the total number of works owned by Lee Kun-hee.

The exact scale and makeup of collections belonging to Lee, his family, and Samsung have long been the subject of mystery and confusion. Art buying associated with the technology company burst into the spotlight in 2008, when prosecutors raided a Samsung warehouse in Yongin, just south of Seoul, and found pieces by Frank Stella, David Hockney, and Barnett Newman amid in investigation into the company’s accounting, as Yonhap reported at the time.

The Leeum and Hoam Museums administered by Samsung’s cultural foundation have been closed since the start of the pandemic, even as most other art institutions in the country have largely remained open. In 2017, Hong, Lee Kun-hee’s wife, stepped down as director of the Leeum after their son Lee Jae-yong was arrested on bribery charges, and  special exhibitions there were canceled.

Lee, who is the de facto head of Samsung, was sent to prison this past January on a 30-month sentence, potentially complicating estate planning. The family’s efforts to maintain control of shares in various Samsung affiliates has also made their tax preparations particularly delicate. The Financial Times reported that they will pay in six installments over the next five years, in part using loans against their Samsung shares to finance the bill.

Rumors of a March reopening for the Leeum, which is stocked with Korean and Western art, did not pan out. Its return is hotly anticipated in the local art world. A request for comment about its plans was not immediately returned.

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