Lavish donations bought art world acclaim for a South Korean billionaire's photos by @shaunacysays via @FastCoDesign

South Korean billionaire Yoo Byung-eun spent millions trying to make himself into a fine art photographer.

Thanks to hefty donations, he exhibited his work in places like the Louvre and Versailles.

He went by the psuedonym Ahae.

His photographs were supposedly all shot through the window of his studio.

He claimed to have taken 2.6 million photographs in four years.

His exhibits received bafflingly positive reviews from publications like the Economist.

South Korean prosecutors say that Yoo and his family siphoned funds from their businesses--including the company that owned the ferry that sunk off the southern coast of South Korea in April--to pay for his photography exhibitions.

Yoo disappeared soon after the ferry disaster. After a manhunt, his body was found in June.

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How A Billionaire Crook Bought Art-World Cred

The tycoon wanted in connection to April's South Korean ferry disaster spent millions to exhibit his photographs in lofty places.

The New York Times has a tremendous story about Yoo Byung-eun, the South Korean billionaire who disappeared shortly after a ferry owned and operated by one of his family's companies sank, killing more than 300 people, many of them school children. As the Times reports, the 73-year-old tycoon led a bizarre, sordid life: he helmed a cultish religious movement that was linked to a mass suicide, and he spent four years in prison for siphoning church funding into his businesses. He also spent millions of dollars trying to style himself as a reclusive but brilliant photographer—a strategy that, incredibly, worked.

Going by the pseudonym Ahae and working in conjunction with his family, which controlled at least 70 companies, Yoo paid to exhibit his work (largely blurry nature shots) in places like the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles.

According to The New York Times:

Hoping to reinvent him as a Zen-like artistic genius, a family business donated $1.5 million to the Louvre, which then etched his new identity—the pseudonym Ahae—in gold on a marble wall at the museum. The family inaugurated a worldwide tour of his photos at Grand Central Terminal in New York and spent nearly $1 million to rent space as part of a deal to exhibit his work for months at Versailles, the palatial former home of French monarchs.

His work was also shown in Grand Central Terminal, the Alinari National Museum of Photography in Italy, and the National Gallery in Prague, according to Ahae's website. And the exhibitions got real reviews—largely positive.

The Economist noted that on first glance the images seemed "unimpressive," but nevertheless gushed that "Ahae’s forensic attention to detail reveals the stoicism, dignity and minor dramas of the animals going about their daily business, and raises these pictures to the realm of poetry." A writer for T magazine observed that the photographs—consisting of images shot out of the same window—created "a kind of surrealist representation of a single day." Ahae's website claimed he shot 2.6 million images over the course of four years, up to 3,000 images per day.

Prosecutors investigating Yoo's role in the sinking of the ferry have alleged that the millions of dollars Yoo and his family used to pay for museum donations, personally commissioned symphonies, and lavish events to further Yoo's art-world stardom put his companies in a precarious financial position. According to The New York Times, the company that owned the ferry, which sank in April, spent only $2 on safety training last year. As a result, the ferry's crew had no idea what to do during a disaster.

Yoo's body was found in mid-June and identified last week. has been updated since his death to include denials of such charges, claiming "He is not the ferry operator owner," and "He was not guilty of financial crimes," among other things. Yoo's son, Keith, admitted in an interview with a French magazine that the Ahae exhibitions were funded by the family's companies.

Money can't buy everything, but it sure can buy you a spot in the Louvre.

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  • Any time you argue about whether something is or isn't Art, you give it legitimacy. Better to just accept that all of it is Art, and focus on whether it's any good. In this case, it appears to be pretty bad.

  • A decent illustration of the pretentiousness of the Art world trying to tell the ignorant masses what is "good" and what isn't. See also the Abstract art movement.

    "Art" that can be reproduced by someone without talent is not Art.

  • Talent isn't the deciding factor. If a piece evokes emotion then it's art. Anyone who can do that is an artist. That said, I don't think this guy is making art.