Imagine an attractive and talented young woman who said she had an art history doctorate from Oxford. Vivacious and persuasive, she becomes the director of the Tate Gallery. Then, just after being hired to curate the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, she is exposed as a fake who failed to get a single A-level.
This scenario, reminiscent of a Patrica Highsmith novel with its hint of The Talented Mr Ripley, is precisely the scandal now rocking the Korean art world after one of its rising stars, Shin Jeong-ah, was unveiled as a fraud.
Until this week, Shin, 35, was at the top of her profession. Claiming to have a doctorate from Yale and a master’s degree from Kansas University, she was the youngest professor at Seoul’s prestigious Dongguk University and the head curator of the Sungkok Art Museum, home to some of Korea’s most prestigious exhibitions and the recipient of millions of pounds in corporate sponsorship from the country’s biggest conglomerates.
In the past 12 months Shin’s shows have included high-profile retrospectives for the British illustrator John Burningham and the French multi-media artist Alain Fleischer. The latter was a major event organised as part of the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and France. The opening, which Shin attended in her role as chief curator, was hosted by the French ambassador to Seoul.
Shin’s latest exhibition was a glitzy affair featuring the American artist William Wegman. This week she was named co-curator of the 2008 Gwangju Biennale, one of the biggest fine art events in South-east Asia – she would have been the biennale’s youngest curator. In a country that takes art seriously, and has an exceptionally large number of museums for its size, many saw Shin’s appointment as a sign that the young curator was destined to become the leading figure among Korea’s legion of art gallery administrators.
But others were less impressed. Academia and the art world have always been prey to petty jealousies, and Shin became the subject of a rumour mill that spread gossip about her qualifications. On Monday rumour became fact when the University of Kansas issued a statement saying Shin had attended classes there between 1992 and 1996 but had never graduated.
Officials at the Gwanju Biennale initially supported her. They produced a document backing her claims to have a Yale doctorate – a faxed response from the Connecticut-based school to an inquiry by Dongguk University in September 2005.
The fax purported to be from Pamela Schirmeister, an associate dean of Yale’s Graduate School. It states that Shin entered Yale’s art history department in August 1996 and graduated in May 2005 with a doctoral degree in art. Dongguk said on Wednesday this week that Yale had agreed to look into the fax.
In a telephone interview with Seoul’s Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper on Tuesday, Shin said, “I certainly did receive a degree from Yale, which is proven by the document Dongguk received from Yale in 2005. I will make a statement and take legal action as soon as I return to Seoul.”
But the firestorm consuming her career intensified when Yale issued a terse statement yesterday stating that Shin did not graduate with a doctorate in 2005, as she had claimed, and had, in fact, never been registered with the university at all.
It was also disclosed that the dissertation Shin submitted to Dongguk University, a study of the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, had been stolen from another academic. The thesis is almost identical to a work which was originally published by the Greek scholar Ekaterini Samaltanou-Tsiakma in 1981. The Gwanju Biennale committee immediately cancelled Shin’s appointment.
Shin, who is currently in Paris but plans to return to Seoul today, has yet to comment on Yale’s emphatic denunciation of her alleged credentials. In Korea she faces a lengthy prison sentence for fraud and Dongguk University and the Gwanju Biennale have said they plan to seek legal sanctions against the young woman they once saw as their most precocious star.
Experts say it’s always puzzling when a person who has sought high profile positions in prominent professions is shown to be a fraud.
“Their lives are incredibly hard,” Leo Sang-min Whang, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, said. “Shin must have known this day would come, when her world would implode. The extraordinary fact is that people like her are often excellent at their jobs.”
Shin fits this characterisation. Like Tom Ripley, the Highsmith character who is so good at pretending to be Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, Shin was excellent at being a curator, despite having no qualifications for the job.
Her meteoric rise began in 1997 when she was taken on as a translator at the Kumho Museum, one of several art galleries in Seoul that are funded by private foundations established with money from huge corporations. Kumho is Korea’s biggest tyre company and it owns Asiana, Korea’s second-largest airline.
Shin’s performance was outstanding. Within a year she had been promoted and became an assistant curator.
“She was very talented at planning exhibitions,” a leading Korean art critic told the Kyunghyang Daily News. “She was not much of an art historian or a theoretician but she put on some excellent shows which were very popular. That’s why the museums loved her.”
Art is big business in Korea. Large exhibitions in Seoul attract millions of pounds in sponsorship and when one is a success culture-hungry Koreans will fill the galleries to capacity for weeks in a row. Shin seems to have understood the formula for a good exhibition and she also had an excellent capacity to seek out powerful allies.
“The reason she had this amazing career is that she was very polite,” said the director of a large private museum. “She took great care of the older generation of artists. This was a strategy for her. She charmed the old guys and they loved her and supported her career.”
In 2002, after she had risen to be first curator at the Kumho, Shin moved to the Sungkok Art Gallery, one of Korea’s most important institutions, on a par with other large international galleries. Around the same time she became a visiting professor at Dongguk, the top Buddhist university in Korea. In 2005 she was promoted to a full professorship.
But her appointment was controversial. Jung Woo-taek, an art history professor at Dongguk, claimed Shin was given special treatment. “There were objections from professors at that time since she studied Western art history, but our department teaches Buddhist art history,” said Jung, who was the head of Dongguk’s art history department in 2005. “But the school unilaterally made the decision to hire her.”
Dongguk’s checks of Shin’s claims to have three degrees were cursory at best. They received no reply from Kansas in 2005 and only a fax, now disputed, from Yale. Some are not surprised that Shin was able to slip through the cracks.
“Talented people with an advanced degree from a prestigious international university are rare in Korea,” said an art critic at a leading art magazine in Seoul. “That made it easy for her package to be accepted. People wanted to believe that she was for real.”
For a society where women are still expected to know their place, Shin also had the benefit of being different. “She is a very extroverted character and she was very talented at self-promotion,” the director of a museum in southern Seoul said. “That’s what started the rumours about her qualifications. She was just too good at pushing herself forward.”
The world will have to wait for Shin’s own explanation of her Ripleyesque fraud but the answer may lie in the midst of one of Korea’s worst disasters, the 29 June 1995 collapse of the Sampoong department store in Seoul, which killed 501 and injured 937.
Shin was in the store that day and came close to death. Aged 24, she was crushed beneath the collapsed building and was trapped for more than 24 hours. She suffered multiple fractures and intestinal injuries.
“A beach towel wrapped itself around my face and saved it from harm,” Shin told the Chosun Ilbo a few years after the disaster, when her rarefied career in the art world was just beginning to take-off. “Because my face was OK, I have my second life and I’m very lucky. Everything is very easy for me. Before the disaster I was a very introverted character. Now I am aggressive. After surviving Sampoong I developed a very powerful driving force and sense of initiative.”
A driving force that, apparently, led her to invent a luminous academic career which was nothing short of a fantasy. Consequently Shin finds herself buried again, this time beneath the rubble of her own fanciful dreams and aspirations. The difference is that she is likely to be trapped by the debris of her lies for much longer than 24 hours. In the Chosun Ilbo interview Shin was described as a “phoenix, who rose from the ashes”. Now she has been unmasked as a fraud whose career has gone up in flames. Given the unforgiving nature of Korean society, it’s unlikely she will rise again.