Following extended loan, South Korea returns art masterpieces to Israel

In the world of priceless artwork, as with all items, what gets lent must get returned. But the coronavirus has wrought some unusual situations, including the prolonged loan of 106 valuable artworks from the Israel Museum to the Hangaram Art Museum in South Korea.

The masterpieces, including work by Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin, and Monet, were returned last week, after being away for nearly a year.

The loan coincided with the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea, which meant the initial exhibition drew smaller crowds.

After the exhibit was dismantled in late May and the works were readied for the flight back home, the Hangaram Museum requested an extension on the loan for another two months, in order to show the Impressionist and post-Impressionist artworks to larger crowds.

The exhibition finished its second, successful run on August 19, with tens of thousands of visitors viewing the art treasures. But flights were then canceled due to second lockdowns in Israel and Korea.

“The coronavirus just caught us with these pieces in Korea,” said Sivan Eran-Levian, head of Traveling Exhibitions at the Israel Museum. “How do you operate with the airports and galleries and museums being closed?”

Eran-Levian’s department at the Israel Museum has been in operation for 21 years, working with dozens of museums around the world. When the coronavirus arrived in Israel, the museum had seven loans out to museums in Germany, Holland, Japan and Korea.

“In one fell swoop, everyone was in same situation and had to find solutions,” said Eran-Levian. “You trust your colleagues, but you also feel like you’re losing some control, so we had to find creative solutions.”

When the Israel Museum extended the loan of the 106 masterpieces to the Korean museum, it still weren’t clear when the works would be returned. But the museum staff knew that the Korean museum’s request made sense, and they figured out how to overcome the challenge, said Eran-Levian, adding that the Israel Embassy in Korea also helped out.

“We’re proud of our solution and it helped prepare us for the future,” said Eran-Levian. “Now we know how to continue working within this crisis.”

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