ART MARKET / Mitterand makes a Korea move: The French President may have opened the floodgates to a repatriation of Korean treasures, says Geraldine Norman

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CONNOISSEURS in France are convinced that President Mitterrand has struck a secret deal with the government of South Korea whereby Korean manuscripts in the Bibliotheque Nationale (BN) are to be handed back in return for a pounds 1.5bn contract to build a high-speed rail link between Seoul and the southern port city of Pusan. Only one manuscript has been returned so far, but further transfers are expected when the initial furore has died down. The keeper of Oriental manuscripts at the BN, Monique Cohen, is fighting the transfer tooth and nail.

If the story is true, the arrangement could herald a new era where works of art and manuscripts become pawns in government negotiations and international commerce. Britain, which acquired many treasures by force during its era of political dominance, is likely to be drawn into the game.

The issue first came into the open in September when Mr Mitterrand paid a state visit to Seoul. Four days before his arrival, the Korean government rejected allegations by the German company Siemens AG, that awarding the contract to build a high-speed TGV link to the Anglo-French consortium, GEC-Alsthom, was the result of dirty tricks. Siemens contended that its bid worked out 1 per cent cheaper, but the Korean authorities refused to reopen the bidding - the deal with GEC-Alsthom had been signed in August.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, anxious consultations were taking place between the Culture Minister, Jacques Tourbon, and the officers of the Bibliotheque Nationale. At issue were 298 manuscripts dating from the 18th and 19th centuries concerning Korean court rituals. They had been seized from the royal palace during an invasion of the island of Kangwa in 1866 by a French punitive force, in protest at the execution of French missionaries and other Roman Catholics by the Korean government.

The manuscripts were deposited with the Bibliotheque Nationale by the Navy Ministry, except, that is, for one which was acquired for pounds 10 by the British Library in 1891 from a Paris cheese merchant: presumably it had been pinched by one of the invading force.

The BN was first approached over the return of the manuscripts in January 1992: a request had been channelled through the French Embassy in Seoul to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. The library officers carefully consulted their statutes and advised the Ministry that they had no legal right to give away or sell the material entrusted to their care.

Last August the issue resurfaced in earnest. An initial approach from the Minister of Culture to the BN was met with the same advice. On 13 September, however, the Ministry formally requested that two or three volumes should be put on board the President's jet which was scheduled to depart for Seoul at 4pm. The library refused.

On 14 September all hell broke loose. The director of the BN, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Ms Cohen were summoned to the Culture Ministry by Mr Tourbon and a short- term loan was reluctantly agreed. Mr Ladurie accepted sending one of the manuscripts to Seoul, accompanied by two curators - his deputy, Jacqueline Samson, and Ms Cohen - who would ensure it was properly cared for and that it returned with them.

As they settled into their seats for the last leg of the journey from Tokyo to Seoul aboard a Korean Airways plane, they opened a complimentary copy of the English-language Korean Times and read, to their horror, an article by Hong Soon-il entitled Return of Art Objects.

'Koreans, like Greeks, Egyptians and other nations hit by pillage and massive outflow of their antiquities by foreign powers, have become markedly assertive in their efforts to retrieve their cultural assets,' wrote Mr Hong. 'Francois Mitterrand has said he instructed his cabinet to study the repatriation of the bibliographic relics to Korea. If and when the return of the royal documents in France is realised, it will mark the first repatriation of Korean cultural property from Europe, hopefully to be followed by other Western countries.'

The two curators were met by a French diplomat and whisked to the embassy where they were asked to hand over the manuscript, but they refused. It was not until Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, telephoned Mr Tourbon in Paris, who ordered the curators to hand over the manuscript, that they gave in. Half an hour later President Mitterrand formally handed the manuscript to South Korea's President, Kim Young Sam.

On their return to Paris, both curators resigned but Mr Tourbon would not accept their resignations. They also issued a statement of outrage to the press, describing the manuscript as the 'inalienable' property of the French state. Their stand was loudly supported by the museum and library establishment.

Mr Tourbon, meanwhile, announced that the manuscript was 'on long-term loan', even though the Korean press had described it as 'returned' without strings. The formation of a joint Korean-French working party on the return of cultural relics was also announced in Seoul and Paris, although Mr Tourbon has not yet revealed who will represent France.

The Koreans have since raised their sights. According to the Korean Newsreview of 6 November: 'France's National Library has among its prized possessions the first book in the world printed with metal type, and the oldest journal in the world. What these two books also have in common is that they are both Korean, and the South Koreans want their treasures returned.'

The 'first book' is a collection of Buddhist texts which was printed at the Hungdok Temple in 1377, thus predating the Gutenberg Bible by 37 years: it was acquired by a French diplomat in Korea in the 19th century and was donated to the BN in the 1950s. The 'oldest journal' is more Chinese than Korean; it is a travelogue about the Silk Road between China and India written AD727, in Chinese, by a monk of Korean extraction.

The Koreans have sent their representatives all round the world to document Korean treasures in foreign hands. According to the Newsreview article, they have found 31,223 in Japan, 7,281 in Britain, 5,803 in the United States and about 4,000 in Germany. The campaign to get them back is clearly being taken very seriously. But at the same time, the Koreans are generously helping Western museums to improve the display of their Korean art collections: the British Museum has been given over pounds 1m for a new Korean gallery and similar deals are under discussion with the Musee Guimet in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

So how is this apparent contradiction explained? South Korea has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and therefore plenty of money to dispose of. By approaching Western institutions with both a carrot and a stick, they may well achieve their aims. But if Korea successfully browbeats the Western world into handing back cultural treasures, there is going to be an avalanche of further demands from other parts of the globe.-

(Photograph omitted)