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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE returns Joseon Dynasty cultural artifact to South Korea

ICE returns Joseon Dynasty cultural artifact to South Korea
ICE returns Joseon Dynasty cultural artifact to South Korea
ICE returns Joseon Dynasty cultural artifact to South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) returned a Hojo currency plate, looted from the Deoksu Palace in Seoul during the Korean War, to the government of South Korea during a repatriation ceremony. The Hojo currency plate, which dates back to 1893 during the Joseon Dynasty and is one of only three in existence, was unlawfully exported to the United States. It was later seized in New York following an investigation by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents in Detroit. This repatriation marks the first time ICE has repatriated a cultural artifact to South Korea.

HSI Regional Attaché for Korea & Japan Taekuk Cho turned over the artifact to U.S. Ambassador Sung Y. Kim, who presented it to the Government of Korea Tuesday during a repatriation ceremony at the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul. Prosecutor General Dong-wook Chae accepted the artifact and ultimately turned it over to the Korean Cultural Heritage Administration Commissioner Youngsup Byun. The plate will be housed in the National Palace museum at Gyeongbuk Palace.

"This law enforcement cooperation, bringing back a Joseon-era national treasure, is a wonderful example of the strong partnership between the United States and Korea," said Ambassador Kim. It is a very special reminder of the deep bonds between our two countries as we celebrate the hwangap of our alliance."

"We understand the cultural and historical significance of safeguarding a nation’s treasures," said Cho. "Today’s repatriation is an example of what can be accomplished when law enforcement partners and government leaders from around the world work together in an effort to ensure that a stolen and looted priceless cultural artifact like this is returned to its rightful owner."

Korea’s Prosecutor General Dong-wook Chae said, "The cooperation between the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations - Attaché Seoul has been exceptional. This partnership should serve as a model for all international law enforcement."

HSI special agents in New York arrested Won Young Youn, 54, formerly of Fort Lee, N.J., in January for illegally purchasing the currency plate from Oxford, Mich., auction house owner James Amato. The currency plate was recovered by HSI in New York subsequent to Youn’s arrest. Amato, 50, was subsequently arrested in February on charges of making false statements and for transporting and selling the artifact.

According to the HSI investigation, Amato, the owner of Midwest Auction Galleries, sold the currency plate in 2010 to Youn for $35,000. Amato sold the plate on behalf of the family of a deceased American serviceman, who reportedly brought it back to Michigan after a tour of duty in the Korean War.

While the item was listed for sale and before Youn’s purchase, Amato and Youn were contacted by officials with the Korean Embassy and the U.S. State Department, and advised that the sale of the item could be in violation of the National Stolen Property Act.

After the sale, HSI launched an investigation into the item, which experts believe is one of three Hojo currency plates still in existence from the 1890s. The currency plates ushered in modern currency printing methods in Korea.

To avoid criminal prosecutions, both men entered into agreements with the government forfeiting their claims to the currency plate. Youn, a Korean native who was illegally present in the United States, agreed to voluntarily depart the country and returned to his native country July 31.

Amato entered into an agreement for pretrial diversion and has satisfactorily met the following conditions: 90-days of supervised release; payment of $35,000; and 40 hours of community service.

"I applaud the speed and precision with which HSI special agents and federal prosecutors handled this complex investigation after the identity of the buyer and location of the currency plate was determined," said William Hayes, acting special agent in charge of HSI Detroit. "Our intention from the very beginning was to ensure the item's expeditious return its rightful owners. The successful resolution of both the criminal and civil proceedings ensures that this valuable artifact be returned to the people of Korea."

HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 75 attaché offices in 48 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

HSI specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Since 2007, more than 7,150 artifacts have been returned to 26 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.

Learn more about HSI cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete its online tip form.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of Michigan handled the criminal prosecution and forfeiture.