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MFA agrees to return sacred relics to Korea

Decision comes 15 years after the museum was first asked to return the objects

The Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to return sacred relics to Korea that have been housed in an ancient reliquary.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts will part with a coveted trove of sacred Buddhist relics, agreeing at a meeting earlier this week to donate the ancient objects to a Buddhist order in Korea.

Known as sarira, the bronze and glass fragments are the symbolic remains of two Buddhist monks. The objects have been in contention since 2009, when the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism unsuccessfully petitioned the MFA to return the sarira and the vessel that holds them on account of their religious significance.

But following a meeting Monday with members of Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration, the Jogye Order, and the Korean Consulate in Boston, the MFA said it now intends to give the objects to the Jogye Order before May 15, when the Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in Korea.

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The sarira are housed in a 14th-century pagoda-shaped reliquary the MFA purchased from a Boston dealer in 1939, well into Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula. The museum describes the silver vessel, which remains on view, as “a highlight of the MFA’s collection.”

There “is nothing in the Reliquary’s history to indicate theft, looting, or coercive transfer,” the museum said in a statement to the Globe. “At this time, no decisions have been made about lending the Reliquary or other objects from the MFA’s collection.”

According to the MFA’s website, the museum considered returning the sarira to the Jogye Order in 2009 while keeping the reliquary itself in Boston.

“The museum was advised by various Korean museums and government officials, including the Korean National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, not to separate the reliquary from its contents,” according to the reliquary’s collections page.

In an email, the MFA said the Cultural Heritage Administration “clarified that they have no objection to the separation of the Sarira and Reliquary.”

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Giho Lee, consul of the Korean Consulate General in Boston, said he was appreciative that the MFA convened the meeting, which he said produced “meaningful results.”

“The Korean Consulate General welcomes MFA’s plan to donate the Sarira of great significance to the Buddhist Community in Korea,” he said via email. “The Consulate General office will step up necessary efforts to enhance partnerships with MFA to raise the awareness of Korean culture and arts in Boston.”

The agreement comes as the MFA and other museums across the country have begun removing culturally significant Native American items from display in response to updated federal guidelines.

The MFA said monks from the Jogye Order plan to hold a private ceremony at the museum before the Sarira’s transfer, adding that the parties plan to “explore possible exchanges, including reciprocal loans of artwork.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.