Police in Seoul believed they had their man. Following a nearly year-long investigation into the forgery of several works attributed to acclaimed South Korean artist
, a suspect was arrested in May after fleeing to Japan. The man charged—identified only by his surname of Hyeon—operated a gallery in Northeastern Seoul, from which he allegedly sold forged paintings purportedly by Lee. Hyeon allegedly raked in some $1.1 million in the process.
Hyeon was not the only one arrested as part of the investigation into the source of some 13 counterfeit works attributed to Lee. But shortly after the police picked up Hyeon, the Korea Times
ran a story
under the headline “13 of Lee’s paintings confirmed to be forged.” According to appraisers and forensic experts, the works in question were not genuine. Even Hyeon admitted to forging the paintings, when questioned by police. Under normal circumstances, the weight of these opinions would sink any doubt that the works were not by Lee’s hand. But no one had asked the artist. And, as it turns out, he disagrees.
Best known as a pioneer of the Japanese Mono-ha style, Lee is among the most influential and expensive living Korean artists, with his work fetching millions of dollars at auction. Exemplary of the 80-year-old’s subtle and meditative practice is From Line, No. 760219
(1976), which sold for $2.16 million at Sotheby’s in 2014. A counterfeit of the “From Lines” series was among the 13 works police claim are forged. Hyeon has admitted
to have forged 50 others, possibly in collaboration with an unnamed painter and dealer.
The twist came late last week, after authorities requested that Lee confirm that the works were indeed counterfeits. Following a two-day inspection of the works, during which the artist looked over the pieces with a magnifying glass and compared them to catalogue records, he declared
that he “found nothing wrong in all the 13 pieces. The use of color, rhythm and breathing are all mine."
Lee’s statement directly contradicts the evidence against Hyeon, a 66-year-old gallery owner who confessed to selling three of the 13 works in question. (Other dealers have also been arrested.) The artist didn’t comment on findings by the National Forensic Service and civilian experts, which the police had used to support their contention that all three works were forged. Rather, he invoked some forensic evidence of his own—albeit a less scientific kind. “Breath and rhythm are like fingerprints, which no one can copy. A third person, however talented the person might be, can't do exactly like the artist does,” he told Yonhap News
The artist went so far as to imply that the police had encouraged him to confirm their assessment. “On June 27, police asked me to acknowledge that the four pieces that Mr. Hyeon admitted to having forged were indeed fakes in an attempt to reach a compromise,” Lee told
reporters, “but I refused.” He also voiced concerns about how the authorities handled the investigation, criticizing their decision to consult him so late into the authentication process. “An artist has a responsibility and the right to view his paintings first. But they left me out in the investigation and came to a conclusion without consulting me,” he said.