What became of the Korean vase?

The mystery has occupied directors of major Washington museums and the Harry S Truman Library in Independence, Mo., since last month's visit by South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan. All of the museums would like to have it.

In 1946 President Truman received a rare Korean national treasure, a Koryo period celadon vase from the royal tomb of the consort of King Injong (1123-1146 A.D.). The gift was duly admired and photographed, its presentation noted in the press.

"The vase was discovered in 1912 at the royal tomb of an ancient Korean Queen near Chang Dan County, Kyonggi Province, Korea, about 32 miles from the capital city of Seoul," wrote John Shirley Hurst, then a Washington Post news editor, in the June 6, 1946, Voice of Korea, a Korean Affairs Institute publication. ". . .The vase is dark sage green heavily glazed with a floral design. Two gold inlays on its upper and lower edges probably repairs were done by hand by an artisan of the Royal Household. There are only five known vases in Korea of this antiquity, three of which are kept in the museum of the Duck Soo Palace in Seoul."

And that's the last time anyone admits seeing it.

Recent interest in the vase was sparked by Gregory Henderson, now with the Korea Institute at Fairbanks Center for East Asian Studies at Harvard University. He believes the vase is a companion piece to a designated treasure in the Korean national museum, and estimates it may be worth about $50,000 on today's market.

Henderson first learned about the vase about five years ago, when he saw the Voice of Korea story in a bound volume. "I knew Lee Wook Chang (president of Seoul Normal College in Korea and then a delegate of the Korean Educational Commission), who presented the vase to Truman. And I'm a collector of Korean ceramics. I knew I'd never seen the vase in any collection, so I wondered what had happened to it."

Henderson talked with Margaret Truman Daniel, who, he said, consulted her mother before she died, and checked with various organizations that might have the vase. No one could find it. In the years since, Henderson has kept a close watch on auction sales, without any luck. He thought of the vase again upon the recent Korean visit.

New queries by The Washington Post have prompted investigations by the Freer Gallery of Art, the White House, the State Department State Gifts office, the Truman Library and Home in Independence, the National Archives presidential libraries division, the National Museum of Natural History and Blair House.

"We have correspondence and photographs showing the vase ceremony, but no indication in the documents what happened to it," said Benedict Zobrist, director of the Truman Library. "I believe the vase never was brought to Independence. President Truman gave many foreign gifts to the Smithsonian."

Thomas Lawton, director of the Freer Gallery, the Smithsonian's museum of oriental art, said he was sure the vase was not at his gallery, but that he'd like to have it. "The vase is interesting because it comes from a royal consort," he said, "making it of imperial quality. That says a lot about the piece. It is also datable -- experts like to have guideposts.

"We don't have anything from the Injong tomb. The shape is based on Chinese tradition, but it seems embellished with Korean floral designs. Everything about it indicates the Koreans gave one of their finest art objects to the president," Lawton said.

Betty Monkman, associate curator at the White House, and Pam Gardner, who works with state gifts at the State Department, both said that in 1966 the laws regulating acceptance and disposition of gifts to the president from foreign governments were stiffened considerably. Neither the White House nor the State Department has any record of the vase.

The National Museum of Natural History, which has large Korean collections, also has a new, computerized inventory. A check by Director Richard Fiske, however, did not locate the vase. Bob Johnston, registrar at the National Museum of American Art, turned up two Korean vases, but not the vase.

Was it broken? Misplaced? A victim of what insurance companies call "mysterious disappearance"?

Another possibility:

In 1948 the Trumans moved into Blair House while the White House was being rebuilt. William Allman, a Conger assistant, said no Korean vase was listed on the June 1948 White House inventory, just before the Trumans moved to Blair House, though it could have been excluded as being the Trumans' private effects. Neither 1940s or '50s pictures of Blair House nor its new inventory show any trace of the vase, said Associate Curator Cassandra Stone.

When the White House was rebuilt, "plaster ornaments were cut up and given away," said Clement Conger, White House, Blair House and State Department curator, "and mantels and chandeliers were disbursed to museums and other places all over the country."

Monkman explained that most White House furnishings went into storage at the time of the rebuilding.

And not everything that went into storage came out again, said Camilla Moody Payne, a Blair House decorator in the 1950s.

If the mystery of the Korean vase is ever solved, the search can begin for the great Louis Comfort Tiffany screen, which once stretched across the White House's foyer.