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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE seizes 9 ancient Korean artifacts in Southern California

HSI seizes 9 ancient Korean artifacts in Southern California
HSI seizes 9 ancient Korean artifacts in Southern California

SEOUL – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents seized nine seals of the Korean Empire and Joseon Dynasty Monday in San Diego. The cultural artifacts were turned over to HSI special agents by the family of a deceased Marine lieutenant, who had served in the Korean War. The lieutenant had found the seals in 1950 in a ditch near the Deoksugung Palace, which had just been ransacked by Chinese and North Korean soldiers.

The seizure is part of a joint investigation by HSI Seoul and San Diego with the assistance of the South Korean Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) and the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) in Seoul.

The nine seals include three national seals of the Korean Empire, one royal seal of the Korean Empire and five signets of the Joseon Royal Court of the Joseon Dynasty. The Korean Empire (1897-1910) succeeded the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

"The nine Korean seals recovered by HSI special agents are worth millions in the antiquities business, but they are priceless to South Korea," said HSI Attaché Seoul Taekuk Cho. "The seizure is a direct result of international cooperation and sends a clear message to individuals trying to profit from illicit cultural property in the United States: HSI is dedicated to protecting cultural heritage and will use all its authorities to return unlawfully removed cultural property to its rightful owner."

"HSI's cultural property investigation was phenomenal," said CHA Acting Administrator Young Dae Park. "CHA is deeply grateful to HSI special agents. The nine Korean seals recovered by HSI are invaluable to South Korea as they represent Gojong, the first emperor of the Korean Empire."

National seals and royal seals are the two main types of seals made by the Korean government. National seals were made for practical uses, mostly to stamp on the government’s official documents. Royal seals were carved to commemorate royal rituals. Among the seals seized were Hwangjejibo (Seal of Emperor), the national seal made upon an establishment of the Korean Empire in 1897 and Sugangtaehwangjebo (Royal Seal of ex-Emperor Sugang), the royal seal carved to commemorate the 1907 royal ritual. Both Yuseojibo (Seal of Yuseo) and Junmyeongjibo (Seal of Junmyeong) were used by the government of the Korean Empire for official purposes such as appointing the government officials. Five other signets were used to stamp on the books or paintings in the Joseon Royal court.

In September, HSI Washington special agents received information from a Washington, D.C., based antiquities expert that a man residing in Escondido, Calif., had contacted them in an effort to find out if the seals were valuable. HSI Washington forwarded photographs of the seals that were provided to the antiquities expert to HSI Attaché Seoul. HSI Attaché Seoul provided the photographs to the CHA, which determined that the seals appeared to be official seals of the Joseon Dynasty.

In October, the CHA and SPO International Cooperation Center (ICC) requested HSI Seoul’s assistance in recovering the seals.

HSI Attaché Seoul provided the information to HSI San Diego to assist in locating and recovering the cultural property, which was illegally exported into the United States. Subsequently, the seals were seized pursuant to abandonment of property form and in violation of the Cultural Property Implementation Act.

On Feb. 14, 1983, South Korea became a signature country to the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. South Korea’s applicable cultural patrimony laws are the Korean National Property Act, enacted April 8, 1950 and the Korean National Property Act-Enforcement Decree, enacted June 10, 1950. According to the Korean National Property Act, the aforementioned seals fall under the category of Korean national property, which is illegal to transfer or export.

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's 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.