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A spectator stands in front women and jars by Lee Whanki at the preview of an exhibition that opened on Wednesday of works from the collection of the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, July 21 (UPI) — Masterpieces from the huge art collection of Lee Kun-hee, the former chairman of Samsung and South Korea’s richest man, went on public display in Seoul on Wednesday for the first time since his heirs donated some 23,000 pieces to museums nationwide.

Lee’s family announced the donation in April, sparking intense speculation about what would become of one of the world’s largest private collections, a treasure trove that includes works by Korea’s top artists as well as pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Claude Monet.

The Samsung chairman, who oversaw the company’s rise from a cheap electronics maker to a global powerhouse, died in October at the age of 78.

A pair of exhibits opened simultaneously at two Seoul museums on Wednesday: the National Museum of Korea, where artworks and artifacts from a range of Korean history were displayed, and the National Museum of modern and contemporary art, which showed early to mid-20th century pieces by Korean masters such as Kim Whanki, Lee Jung-seob and Park Soo-keun.

The National Museum of Korea received some 21,600 works from the Lee family, including treasures such as the 18th-century painting Clearing after the rain on Mount Ingwang by Jeong Seon. Seventy-seven works are exhibited.

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art received 1,488 pieces and placed 58 works in its current exhibition.

Tiffany Yun, the museum’s deputy public relations director, called the donation from Lee’s estate “the gift of the century.”

“Being able to share these works with the public has enormous significance,” she said during a press preview of the exhibition on Tuesday.

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art exhibit features some of South Korea’s most notable pieces, including Bull by Lee Jung-seob and Women and jars by Kim Whanki, the largest canvas ever made by the pioneering abstract artist.

“As a continuation of this exhibition, the MMCA will provide more opportunities for the public to appreciate the high-quality works of art donated and will continue to broaden the horizon of art historical research by studying Lee’s collection in the future,” museum director Youn Bummo said. A declaration.

There was intense interest after Lee’s death about the future of his collection, estimated at around $1.7 billion. Besides donations to Seoul’s two major museums, Lee’s heirs also donated a smaller number of works to five regional museums, according to South Korea’s culture ministry.

The family also announced in April that they would pay the largest inheritance tax in South Korean history on Lee’s estate, around $10.8 billion.

The art donation did not come without controversy, however.

South Korea’s Ministry of Culture announced earlier this month that it would build a new facility to house Lee’s collection and named two potential locations in central Seoul.

Other cities and provincial governments quickly complained about the plan, and a group of 677 art experts released a statement criticizing the decision to keep all the works in one place.

The exposures come at a time when Lee Kun-hee’s son and de facto Samsung leader Lee Jae-yong is in prison, serving a 30-month sentence for bribing former president Park Geun-hye. He is also awaiting the start of another trial on a series of criminal charges related to the controversial 2015 merger of two Samsung subsidiaries.

Business leaders have been pushing for a presidential pardon for Lee, 53, citing Samsung’s outsized importance to South Korea’s economy, a move public opinion also supports, according to recent polls.

Lee Kun-hee was twice convicted of white-collar crimes, in 1996 and 2008, but avoided jail and received a presidential pardon, in a scenario familiar to South Korean business moguls.

The exhibition at the National Museum will continue until September 26, while that at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art will continue until March 13.

The two museums plan to hold another exhibition next April to mark the first anniversary of the donation. Parts of Lee’s collection are also scheduled to appear at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in September 2022.