This summer, Samsung’s founding family is donating tens of thousands of artworks to Korean museums. They’ll also give hundreds of millions of dollars to medical projects. All this charity may be an attempt to improve their public image—as the Lees inherit the wealth and power of South Korea’s richest-ever businessman.
Lee Kun-Hee was the third son of Samsung founder, Lee Byung-chul. When Lee Kun-Hee took over from his father, he revamped the company. Chairman Lee famously told Samsung employees in the 1990s, “Change everything except your wife and kids.”
Lee died last year of after battling cancer and the effects of a massive heart attack. At that time, Samsung was the world’s largest seller of computer memory chips, smartphones, and televisions. And Lee was the wealthiest man in South Korea.
But Lee’s family won’t keep all of the staggering wealth. South Korea’s inheritance taxes are some of the steepest in the world—up to 60%. Lee’s widow and three children owe nearly $11 billion in taxes on his $20 billion fortune.
In addition to paying taxes, the family will donate more than 23,000 pieces of Lee’s personal art collection to Korean museums. The donations may be an attempt to counter the news that the Lees needed to sell the art to pay their bills—and an opportunity to receive some sort of tax break.
Among the family’s holdings are works by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol—as well as many Korean paintings, books, and other cultural properties designated as national treasures.
Market analysts believe a new division of Lee’s Samsung shares could strengthen the leadership of Lee’s son and corporate heir. But money and power may not do Lee Jae-yong much good. He is currently imprisoned for crimes including bribery—a living example of “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1)
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art received 1,488 pieces from the Lee family. The National Museum of Korea will receive around 21,000 pieces from Lee’s collection of traditional Korean paintings, ceramics, and sculptures.
Hwang Hee, South Korea’s culture minister, expressed “deep gratitude” to the Lee family for “enriching” the country’s cultural assets. But he avoided questions on whether he thought Samsung was seeking a Lee Jae-yong pardon.
The Lee family will also donate $900 million to fund infectious disease research for children with cancer and rare illnesses. Samsung says, “Members of the [Lee family] hope to honor the life of the late Chairman Lee and his commitment to corporate citizenship and co-prosperity by giving back to communities.”