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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.

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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. Ahae.com 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.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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