Currency plate looted during Korean War returned

A rare 1893 currency plate used to make some of the first modern Korean paper money was returned to South Korea 60 years after it was looted during the Korean War. U.S. Ambassador Sung Y. Kim presented it to Prosecutor General Dong-wook Chae in a repatriation ceremony at the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul on Tuesday, September 3rd. This is the first time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has returned an artifact to South Korea, and it took three years of cooperation between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutor, the South Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, the South Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. State Department to get here.

It all began in April of 2010 when Midwest Auction Galleries in Oxford, Michigan, listed an “exceptional inscribed Korean bronze plaque” for sale. Auction house owner James Amato was selling it on behalf of the family of deceased U.S. Marine Lionel Hayes who had fought in the Korean War and brought back a large collection of artifacts. Along with the plaque, more than 130 pieces Hayes had taken from the grounds of Seoul’s Deoksu Palace in 1951 after the ouster of North Korean and Chinese troops were on sale at the auction. Most of the pieces were relatively low value decorative objects, ceramics, furniture, etc., from the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. The plaque, on the other hand, was Korean and it stood out in quality and historical importance.

The South Korean Embassy alerted the U.S. State Department that this object could have been removed from the Republic of Korea illegally. HSI identified the bidder as a woman from Flushing, New York. Officials from the embassy and State Department contacted the bidder and Amato warning them the sale might be illegal under the National Stolen Property Act. Amato chose to continue the sale, something even bigger auction houses do all the time because, conveniently for them, they have a far more rigorous standard of proof when it comes to suspending sales of questionable artifacts than they do when researching their ownership history.

The bidder turned out to be a proxy. She was a front for South Korean national Wong Young Youn. When she got the call from the consulate, she alerted Youn who told her he would deal with the consulate and that she should go ahead and bid as planned. She purchased the plate at the auction for $35,000.

Youn was pleased. He told the bidder that this purchase was the equivalent of winning the lottery. Since the Korean government had made it clear they valued the piece highly as an object of cultural heritage, Youn figured he could negotiate with South Korea to return it for a tidy profit. The fact that this was basically blackmail and that he would have the law of two countries all up in his business was no deterrent, apparently, and it really should have been because Youn was in the United States illegally. Hiding his identity behind a proxy bidder was hardly an impenetrable ruse, especially since he actually went on Korean television in May of 2010 to talk about the plate.

In December of 2010, Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration provided evidence that the so-called plaque was actually a Hojo currency plate made in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1897), a very rare and historically significant artifact from the dawn of paper money in Korea that is one of only three known to survive. Emperor Gojong, 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, released the first paper bills in 1893. They were called Hojo Taehwangwon. “Hojo” was the royal treasury and “taehwangwon” means convertible note, indicating they were to be used to convert coins into bills. The notes were printed in denominations of five, 10, 20 and 50 yang. The plate sold at auction printed 10-yang notes.

The money these plates were used to print never made it into the hands of the public. Japanese firms were given printing rights to all Korean currency. They confiscated all the initial runs of banknotes and burned them before the bills went into general circulation. They then introduced new banknotes that bore the Japanese imperial insignia.

While the Korean agencies were investigating the history of the plate, the HSI was investigating the seller and buyer. In June of 2012, HSI issued a customs summons to the auction house. In response, Amato submitted an invoice claiming the artifact had been bought by a certain Weng Liang from Hunan, China, for $9,990. In August of that year, an independent expert submitted an affidavit that the currency plate was “historically and culturally significant.” The expert also found a YouTube video of the plaque. There was a man in that video which HSI agents identified as Youn.

Later that year, HSI contacted the proxy bidder again and she admitted to having been a middleman for Youn’s purchases, setting up accounts on auction house websites to buy Korean artifacts in her name only to be reimbursed by Youn. On January 9th, 2013, HSI charged Wong Young Youn with violating the National Stolen Property Act. Youn collaborated with the authorities and threw Amato under the bus, assuring HSI officials that he bought the currency plates himself for $35,000 and that he has no knowledge of this Weng Liang Amato had claimed to be the buyer. On February 12th, Amato was arrested by HSI agents for making false statements, transporting stolen goods and for the sale or receipt of stolen goods.

Both men entered into plea agreements with HSI renouncing their ownership claims. Youn’s deal required him to voluntarily leave the U.S. and return to South Korea which he did on July 31st. Amato deal was for him to serve 90 days of supervised release, pay a $35,000 fine and do 40 hours of community service. I’m sure the bottom line works out just fine for him over time. Why be scrupulously honest when they only get busted one in thousands of times and then get a slap on the wrist? A couple of weekends collecting median litter and a fine that’s the equivalent of the price paid for the stolen artifact is not exactly a powerful deterrent. At the very least they should get the IRS to take a look at his books since we know for a fact that he invoiced a $35,000 sale at $9,990. There’s a lot of daylight between those two figures.

Anyway, the good news is this was an unprecedented collaboration that worked out in the end. Now South Korea gets its currency plate back so it can go on display at the National Palace Museum of Korea in Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul.