Seoul (AFP) – After years of flying to North Korea with “bags full of money” and returning with hundreds of works of art, investor Frans Broersen believes he has pre-emptively secured a lucrative slice of a market so specialised it doesn’t really exist.
Some critics describe Broersen’s strategy as more akin to carpetbagging than collecting, and dispute the overall quality of the works he purchased during the course of seven trips to Pyongyang beginning in 2005.
Broersen says he cajoled and bribed his way into top artists’ studios, met with painters’ widows who brought canvasses to his hotel room, and doled out hundreds of thousands of euros in cash.
The result is a collection of around 2,500 pieces of contemporary North Korean art, including some by renowned painters like Son U-Yong and Jung Chang-Mo. A selection of nearly 150 paintings form an exhibition that opened in South Korea on Thursday at the Kintex Centre north of Seoul.
Broersen, by his own admission, had “never seen a North Korean art work” before heading to Pyongyang, and is quite candid about the motives for his buying spree.
“We want a return on our investment,” he said of his foundation, set up with two fellow Dutch investors. “We’re not philanthropists.”
Broersen is following a strategy he honed by buying up Russian art around the time of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when prices shot up as the new market opened.
“The whole collection is a huge, long-term investment, speculating that one day the Koreas will unite, the market will open and the value of the works will rise very sharply,” he told AFP in an interview in Seoul.
“At the moment, there is practically no market for North Korean art, because the works are not really being traded,” he added.
The North’s art scene is tightly controlled – there is no abstract art, which is regarded as anti-revolutionary by authorities — and artists are graded by the state, with the highest level being “People’s Artists” like Jung and Song.
For any serious collector, there are numerous potential pitfalls.
“Provenance is always a big issue,” said Carey Park, an art expert at South Korea’s National University of Cultural Heritage.
Star artists often produce multiple copies of their most popular works which are also copied by other artists, so that more people can see them.
“That’s one of the things that is so unique about the North Korean system,” Park said, noting that it also cranks out a lot of works specifically tailored for foreign consumption.
This makes finding high quality pieces, with a clear provenance and with genuine roots in the fabric of North Korean society, extremely difficult.
Koen De Cuester, an expert on North Korean art from Leiden University in the Netherlands, stressed that a hefty bankroll was no substitute for expertise and inside knowledge.
“Just because a painting hails from North Korea, does not make it representative of North Korean art,” De Cuester said in a telephone interview.
“They produce a lot that caters explicitly to foreign tastes – or what they perceive foreign tastes to be — and the artistic merit of those works is questionable, no matter how well executed,” he said.
De Cuester pointed specifically to one painting in Broersen’s show depicting a bikini-clad woman and child paddling in water.
“That is not an art work that would be shown in North Korea. It is exclusively painted for the foreign market,” he said.
In De Cuester’s opinion there are only two or three top-quality private collections of North Korean art.
“And they have been built from years or even decades of working on North Korean art, being exposed to it, knowing the artists and having familiarity on the ground,” he said.
Broersen started buying on just his second trip, when he got through 300,000 euros, relying on his “intuitive” nose for quality.
“I literally arrived there with bags full of money and spent it in what, for them, was an incredible way,” he said, recalling a visit to Son U-Yong’s studio.
After agreeing the price for a certain size of painting, Broersen told them he wanted “this one, that one, that, that, that .. and so on.”
“I bought up to 25 or 30 paintings. Their mouths fell open of course. I spent God knows how much money,” he said.
One consequence of Broersen’s largesse was that the next time he went, the prices he was quoted had shot up — sometimes ten-fold.
By his third trip, Broersen said artists and the relatives of painters who had recently died started seeking him out in his hotel room with works for sale.
“There were widows and pensioners and young artists. They brought rolled-up canvasses and we communicated (prices) with hands and fingers,” he said.
Broersen’s last visit was in 2010.
Despite the perennial tensions between the two Koreas, Broersen’s show is by no means the first of North Korean art in the South.
At one point such exhibitions were quite common, although they dried up after 2010 when contact was essentially frozen following the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. Broersen’s paintings had to be vetted by the South Korean authorities, and he agreed to remove three works whose backgrounds included some political slogans.