Special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) team recently returned long-lost artifacts to South Korea.
The nine royal seals, removed more than 60 years ago during the Korean War, included three national seals from the Korean Empire, one royal seal of the Korean Empire and five signets from the Joseon Royal Court of the Joseon Dynasty.
Feared lost for decades, the seals suddenly reappeared in late 2013 when the family of a former U.S. Marine lieutenant turned them over to HSI agents in San Diego. The lieutenant, who died prior to his family releasing the artifacts, found the seals in 1950 in a ditch near a palace that had been overrun and ransacked by Chinese and North Korean forces.
The Marine brought the artifacts into the United States upon returning home from the war, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The South Korean government considers the emperor’s seal to be a priceless antiquity.
“National treasures are an integral part of the fabric of any nation and they should never be sold or hidden,” Thomas S. Winkowski, ICE’s principal deputy assistant secretary, said in an April 2014 statement.
The royal seals join a long and growing list of artifacts believed lost or stolen that have been repatriated to their rightful country of origin by federal investigators. More than 7,000 items hailing from about two dozen nations – from French paintings to Italian manuscripts and Iraqi artifacts – have been retrieved and returned by Homeland Security Investigations since 2007.
Although the federal agency may sound like a Hollywood mash-up of Indiana Jones and Eliot Ness, HSI agents are specially trained to lead criminal investigations targeting the illegal importation and sale of cultural artifacts. The HSI Office of International Affairs oversees approximately 70 attaché offices around the globe, and often collaborates with foreign governments to recover items.
Agents receive hands-on training from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute on the handling, storing and authentication of works of art and cultural relics.
In addition to the Korean royal seals, special agents recently returned an 18th-century painting to the people of Poland. Titled “Ascension of Christ,” the oil painting was stolen about 20 years ago, only to resurface in 2012 on the auction website eBay. The starting bid for the painting was listed at $22,000.