Professor helps solve international case
Feb. 5, 2013
Dr. Joshua Van Lieu did a double take last summer when he received an email from
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking for his expertise in a case that
had been ongoing for more than two years.
“Basically, the agent said they needed my help in verifying the South Korean government’s
assertion of an allegedly stolen artifact’s historical significance and to confirm
that it was indeed the same thing pictured in an auction house’s catalog,” said
Dr. Van Lieu, Director of Asian Studies and Assistant Professor of History. “I
told them I’d be glad to help.”
The case began in 2010 when a man named Won Young Youn of Flushing, N.Y., purchased
a metal plate used to print Korean currency in the early 1890s. He bought it from
an auction house in Michigan.
According to the criminal complaint, the plate had been brought back to the United
States by a now-dead Marine after his service in Korea in the 1950s. It is thought
he removed it from a Korean palace while he was there. In 2010, his descendants
decided to auction off some of his items.
Although both Youn and the auction house had been warned the item probably had
been plundered during the Korean War and its sale would be in violation of the
National Stolen Property Act, the sale proceeded through a third party. Efforts
then began to recover the relic.
Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Detroit,
said Dr. Van Lieu was recommended by another professor during a national search
for an expert with research background in 19th century Korean currency.
“They contacted Dr. John Duncan, Director of the Center for Korean Studies at
University of California, Los Angeles, and he recommended me,” said Dr. Van Lieu.
“He and I had the same adviser at the University of Washington, so he was familiar
with my area of expertise.”
Dr. Van Lieu specializes in Korean history between 1864 and 1910.
“Korea decided to have a currency reform in 1892 (and the plates were made that
year),” he said. “This would be the first time they produced currency using modern
Korea decided to make paper notes in four denominations – five, 10, 20 and 50
nyang. Eight plates were made – fronts and backs for each denomination. Some notes
were printed in 1893 but were never issued for circulation. Up until 2010, only
two of the eight plates had been accounted for, being housed in the Bank of Korea
When the third one resurfaced in 2010, it caused a great deal of excitement –
so much so that the buyer, Youn, posted a YouTube video extolling the greatness
of his purchase. He also went on a small media tour, talking to Korean media in
the United States about the plate.
Officials aren’t sure why Youn made such a public show of his purchase. He claims
in the video to be a loyal Korean who was saving a piece of his country’s history.
Others suspect he hoped to make a huge profit when he offered to sell it back to
Korea. At this point in the investigation, no one knows.
But it was the YouTube video that was Youn’s downfall. When Dr. Van Lieu began
his research into the plate, he conducted a Google search in Korean. Immediately,
Youn’s video popped up.
“ICE had sent me a high-resolution photo of the plate and asked me to make sure
it was the same one in the auction catalog,” he said. “That was easy to do because
a small blue-green oxidation area was apparent in the same spot in both images.
When I saw the plate in the video, I knew it was the plate.”
He notified ICE and wrote up his findings, including a report on the plate’s historical
significance. And the case broke wide open. “This was a stimulating project for
me,” he said. “My area of research is kind of obscure – not a whole lot of people
in North America do work in this period of Korean history.”
Dr. Van Lieu explained the notes were of interest not only for their rarity, but
also for what was printed on them.
“Up until this time in Korean history, classical Chinese was the language of all
official documents – kind of like Latin was in the West. But on these notes, the
legends were in both classical Chinese and in vernacular Korean. It wasn’t until
1895–96 that vernacular Korean was used broadly in an official capacity.”
Very few of the 1893 nyang-denominated notes remain; so few, in fact, that one
Dr. Van Lieu was able to find online was listed for $90,000.
“These things, like the plates, are just so rare that it’s almost impossible to
put a value on them. I’d consider the plates to be priceless.”
Since Youn’s arrest a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Van Lieu has been interviewed by
the New York Times and several regional newspapers.
Walls, the ICE spokesman, had nothing but praise for the professor.
“Dr. Van Lieu discovered a YouTube video which assisted greatly in the identification
of Mr. Youn, who was arrested as part of this investigation,” Walls said. “In arts
and antiquities-related investigations, contributions from the cultural and academic
community are invaluable in bringing these cases to a successful resolution.
“Dr. Van Lieu was instrumental in helping us bring the case to this stage, and
Homeland Security Investigations is very appreciative of his involvement.”