My Art Auction Auctioneer Jung-min Kim on Breaking Records and the Need for Revised Export Laws
The auction price of Korean antiquities has reached an all-time high in Korea and abroad. A rare blue-and-white porcelain Ojoryongmunho jar, which was auctioned by Korean antique auction company My Art Auction on May 25, 2023, sold for about USD 5.5 million (KRW 7 billion). The previous highest price for a Korean antique was the old book Manuscript of Yi Wang and Song Si-yeol (about $2.55 million), sold in Korea in 2012. The record for an overseas sale was set with an iron and white porcelain Dragon Gate jar ($41 million), which sold at Christie’s in New York in 1996
The recently sold blue-and-white porcelain Ojoryongmunho jar is a large 56cm white porcelain jar and is considered a national treasure. It is believed to have been produced in the 18th century and is engraved with the dragon Ojoryong, which has five claws that symbolize the royal family’s authority during the Joseon dynasty. As a result, the auction was said to have served as an opportunity to re-examine Korean antiquities. In addition, some predicted that the auction would prompt calls to ease regulations on the export of antique works that were produced more than 50 years ago.
Recently, the potential value of the antique/Korean painting sector and the possibility of expanding the market are also noticeable in the Korean art auction market. It seems to be growing quietly but steadily. So is My Art Auction. Of the 69 auctions held in Korea in the first quarter of 2023, sales of antique/Korean paintings accounted for 23%, while seven out of the top ten highest prices in the antique/Korean painting sector were obtained by My Art Auction. With the success of this most recent sale, My Art Auction is expected to strengthen its position as an antique auction company.
I met with Jung-min Kim, auctioneer of My Art Auction, who conducted this sale, to learn more about it. He first brought up the story of the blue-and-white porcelain Ojoryongmunho jar: “There is no mess. More than 300 years have passed, but the work is perfect itself. Art is valuable when it is beautiful above all else, and this work is not only beautiful but also has the dignity to suit it. At the same time, the work is in its best condition, overwhelming the viewers.”
Jung-min Kim also described his long-standing relationship with the jar. This work was selected as a representative work of an exhibition held by the company 11 years ago. Kim, who was particularly interested in ancient art, checked the work in storage and took it out. He still remembers his first impression of this jar. “I was more moved than I am now. The glaze was not oxidized at all, so it was shiny and amazing. I could see at a glance that it was a really great work.”
No matter how good the work was, it was not easy to be optimistic about selling it. This is because the Korean art market quickly entered a period of adjustment in the second half of last year, and the auction market also started to shrink. There were also concerns about a bidding failure. If there was a bidding failure in a shrinking market, the work could not be on the auction floor for the time being. It was an adventure. Kim proceeded with the auction, confident of obtaining a winning bid. “If such a great work fails in bid, I thought the Korean antique market would be dead. There have been collectors who have been interested in this work for a long time, and no matter how much the market shrinks, I expected a deal to be made.”
The result was success. It marked a new milestone in the history of Korean auctions. I asked him about the moment when the jar sold. The starting price of the work was about $5.15 million (KRW 6.6 billion). The bid was made twice in units of about $150,000 (KRW 200 million) and was sold for about $5.5 million (KRW 7 billion). “I think I gave them about a minute before tapping the hammer. I emphasized that it broke the highest price of Korean antique art with an additional explanation of the work. And as soon as I tapped the hammer, a lot of thoughts passed by.”
It was the best deal for Jung-min Kim after more than a decade of auctions. How did it feel? “The highest amount in my previous auction was about $1.56 million (KRW 2 billion),” he said. “I was nervous then, but I was more nervous this time. I couldn’t believe I was in a moment that was once in a lifetime.” The new owner of the work has not yet been disclosed. Kim cautiously said that the collector was a good and bright person who could recognize good works, and that the collector would soon be known to the public.
Regarding the meaning of the auction, Kim predicted that it would be a way to revitalize the Korean antique market. For this reason, he explained that interest in white porcelain and jars has been increasing recently. He then stressed the need to revise the Cultural Properties Protection Law. Antiquities that have been manufactured in Korea more than 50 years ago can only be taken out of the country after government confirmation. As such, the export of antique works is limited, so collectors abroad have less access to Korean antique works. “No matter how good a work is, if it is not traded, its value will inevitably fall. Blocking foreign transactions is like cutting down on value,” Kim says. “Without these improvements, the Korean auction market will be trapped in a narrow well and will not meet the wider world. There is an urgent need to revise the law.”