Dr. Joshua Van Lieu

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 printing methods.”

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 Museum.

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.”

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