Prosecutors who have been searching the homes and offices of disgraced ex-president Chun Doo-hwan and his family say they discovered enough artworks to set up a museum.
Two warehouses of companies run by Chun's eldest son Jae-kook in Gyeonggi Province just outside Seoul contained more than 350 pieces of art, most of them still wrapped. Some were works by famous Korean artists that fetch more than W1 billion (US$1=W1,127).
Chun Jae-kook is an art aficionado who has considered setting up a museum and whose publishing company, Sigongsa, has gained reputation for its art books. Its 55-volume series of monographs about contemporary Korean painters, which started in 1993, drew rave reviews. From 1993 to 2004, he ran an art bookstore in front of Hongik University.
"After he came back from the U.S. in around 1990, Chun Jae-kook established the publishing company and came out with a lot of art books and they got a favorable response from the art world," said one industry source.
But Chun Jae-kook's publishing of those books was also a form of investment because he got free works by up-and-coming artists in exchange for publishing their books. In 1993, when he started to show an interest in art, the government had just banned the opening of bank accounts under borrowed names in an attempt to crack down on money laundering, so Jae-kook may have turned to art to manage his father’s slush funds.
Art purchases are usually made in cash here, so there is rarely an orderly paper trail to prove such transactions. There are no tariffs on art, and hand-written receipts can make it look as if a W500 million piece was bought for just W100 million.
Art is also a highly speculative investment since prices can soar depending on who owns them rather than the skill of the artist. They can be sold quickly for cash and are often favored as investment vehicles to manage slush funds.
"The fact that he owned hundreds of artworks shows that he is more than just an avid collector," said one curator. "It shows that he either wanted to open a museum or bought up the pieces as investments."
Chun Doo-hwan, who came to power in a 1979 military coup, was fined W220 billion in 1997 for amassing illegal slush funds during his decade in office, but only paid W53.3 billion and continues to live a life of luxury.
The National Assembly recently passed a bill allowing the forfeiture of assets illegally gained by Chun's family members or acquaintances and extended the statute of limitations on corruption in office to ensure he does not slip through the net.