Jeon Hyeongpil

A Collector Who Used his Wealth to Protect Korean History

Jeon Hyeongpil was born on July 29th, 1906, as the youngest of 2 brothers and 4 sisters in a wealthy family. His father possessed a large wealth from vast rice fields which allowed Jeon to grow up within the affluent society of a Japanese occupied Korea. He attended Japan’s Waseda University to study law, however had a deep interest in collecting old books since youth. At the age of 24, Jeon’s father passed away, leaving him to inherit much of his wealth and launching him to be one of the top 40 richest people in Korea at the time at just 24 years of age.

Guided by his teacher and mentor, O Se-chang, Jeon realized the importance of saving Korean historical relics and artifacts. With Japanese occupation, most Korean relics were being sold out of the country to either Japanese collectors or even as far as businessmen in Europe. Jeon sought to intercede this as much as he could and began using his inheritance to buy Korean historical relics and artifacts. This was a common hobby among the rich at the time but Jeon began buying not as a hobby but as a sense of mission to protect his country’s cultural heritage and history.

In his time collecting, Jeon accumulated over 160 Korean paintings- 40 more than the National Museum of Korea- along with books, Goryeo porcelain, and more. One of Jeon’s most impressive purchases was his purchase of a 13th century Goryeo celadon vase which is now designated as a national treasure. However, perhaps his most valuable item remains to be the Haerye edition of the Hunminjeongeum. A genuine copy of the Hunminjeongeum- a book detailing Hangul, the current Korean alphabet, when it was created by King Sejong in the 15th century, Jeon came across it in 1940 when he heard from a fellow collector on the finding of the book. The collector was on his way to get the 1,000 won needed to purchase the book- the price of a mansion at the time- however Jeon paid 1,000 won to the collector and then 10,000 for the book. This remained Jeon’s most prized possession. However, he did not release publically that he was in possession of the Hunminjeongeum, due to the Japanese’ crack down on the Korean language and who would surely would try to obtain and destroy such a document. Only after Korea was liberated five years later in 1945 did Jeon make public his possession of the Hunminjeongeum.

After liberation, Jeon also opened up the Bohwagak Museum, a private museum in which he put on display all of the Korean relics he had collected through the years. Unfortunately, the Korean War broke out and Jeon became frustrated as he was at risk of losing what he so meticulously looked after for so many years. While fleeing Seoul, he brought along the Hunminjeongeum to protect it, keeping it in a box made of royal foxglove wood and putting it in his pillow when he slept. After the war, Jeon reopened the museum until the time of his passing on January 26th, 1962. In 1964, the Bohwagak Museum changed its name to Kansong Art Museum, reflecting Jeon’s penname which means “pine tree standing in the clean streams”. It is now opened only twice a year, once in May and once in October for a limited time to the public. The museum draws continuously large crowds and is hailed to be the best museum in the nation due to the quality of its collection.

Jeon is remembered for his meticulous efforts in collecting and protecting Korea’s historical artifacts. Even when he faced economic difficulties later on in his life, he never sold any part of his collection, stressing its importance. He also not only aimed to protect artifacts deemed of high quality but also those that were not deemed so, stressing that every piece was important in telling the story of Korea’s history and that every artifact was indeed “the pride of the nation”.

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