In 1950, an American Marine serving during the Korean War picked up nine royal and national seals in a ditch near Seoul's ransacked Deoksugung Palace. The lieutenant brought those artifacts back to the United States with him. Now more than 60 years later, the objects are making their way back to South Korea.
The family of the Marine, who is now deceased, forfeited the seals to federal authorities in San Diego this week.
The nine seals "are worth millions in the antiquities business, but they are priceless to South Korea," Taekuk Cho, the attaché in Seoul for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), said in a statement.
An antiquities expert in Washington, D.C., tipped off special agents with HSI after being contacted by a man in Escondido, Calif., who was trying to find out if the Korean seals were valuable.
The nine seals included some that were made for practical purposes, like stamping official government documents, and others that were carved to commemorate royal rituals, according to federal officials. Some date to the reign of Gojong, the first emperor of the Korean Empire, who ruled from 1863 to 1907.
"The seizure is a direct result of international cooperation and sends a clear message to individuals trying to profit from illicit cultural property in the United States: HSI is dedicated to protecting cultural heritage and will use all its authorities to return unlawfully removed cultural property to its rightful owner," Cho added.
Korean cultural property laws signed in 1950 make it illegal to transfer or export objects considered national property like these seals. In the past six years, the United States has returned more than 7,150 artifacts to 26 countries, including 15th- to 18th-century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, artifacts from Cambodia and Iraq, and recently, a 16th-century tapestry stolen from a church in Spain.