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Works from Samsung Head’s Storied Collection Head to State-Run South Korean Museums

In a coup for South Korean art institutions, museums across the country are set to receive works from the collection of the late Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee, which is worth billions of dollars and includes more than 13,000 works. Various South Korean outlets, including Naver, Donga, and Yonhap, reported the news on Wednesday.

Although details of the donation are still unclear, the latest news surrounding Lee’s collection marks a significant shift that will ensure that some pieces in it won’t head to sale. The heirs to Lee’s fortune had been considering selling the collection to help pay off a hefty inheritance tax, arousing widespread concern among museum officials in the country.

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Reports by South Korean outlets did not specify an exact number of works that are to be given to institutions in the country, though Hankyung said that “more than half” of the holdings would be donated. Details about which works would be given to which museums also remain uncertain, though they could head to institutions like the National Museum of Korea and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, both of them in Seoul.

The Lee collection includes highly valued works by Western modern artists, including Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Tall Woman III (1960), a portrait of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso, a Claude Monet water lilies painting, an untitled Mark Rothko abstraction, and Francis Bacon’s painting Figure in a Room (1962), which is on permanent display at the Leeum Museum of Art in Seoul, an institution run by the Samsung Culture Foundation. But it also includes historically important antiquities, among them at least 20 works that have been designated National Treasures by the South Korean state.

South Korean publications have placed different values on the collection. Conservative estimates place it at 1 trillion won ($896 million), and more liberal ones say it is worth 3 trillion won ($2.7 billion). (A final appraisal report is still being readied.) With his wife Hong Ra-hee, Lee, who died in October 2020, ranked on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list twice, in 2015 and 2016.

The Lee collection has been closely watched in South Korea because it is related to proceedings surrounding an epic inheritance tax payment plan for his heirs. Lee reportedly left behind 22 trillion won ($19.6 billion), and his heirs could pay 12 trillion won ($10.8 billion) in taxes. Their plan is set to be finalized by April 30.

South Korean law does not permit artworks to be used to pay tax in kind. But amid fears that the Lee collection could be sold, museum officials and former culture ministers in South Korea began calling for a relaxation of that policy earlier this year.

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