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Leopards: A dangerous Korean luxury

A Korean official on an outing. His chair is adorned with a leopard skin. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean official on an outing. His chair is adorned with a leopard skin. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Yuri (George) M. Yankovsky and two leopards he killed in northern Korea in the mid-1930s. Sten Berman,
Yuri (George) M. Yankovsky and two leopards he killed in northern Korea in the mid-1930s. Sten Berman, "In Korean Wilds and Villages."
One cold morning in the winter of 1886, Antoinette Sontag ― a member of the Russian legation in Seoul ― opened her window to feed some of her pet pigeons and was startled to discover a huge leopard glaring at her. It bared its teeth, hissed and then sprang over the legation's walls.

A hunting party was quickly assembled and they followed the leopard's tracks (apparently through the snow) to the abandoned Mulberry Palace (Gyeonghuigung ― now occupied by the Seoul History Museum) but were unable to kill it.

It was not the only leopard to prowl within the city's walls. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, several Western visitors reported encounters with leopards. George Gilmore, an American teacher wrote:

"[During] my residence in Seoul a leopard was shot within a third of a mile of our house, and one was seen several times within a hundred yards of the same. This animal was driven into one of the old palace enclosures by the deep snows of the winter. Doubtless he hoped to make a few meals on the innumerable dogs to be found within the city limits."

Some of these leopards were huge. According to Captain A.E.J. Cavendish, a British military officer who traveled extensively through the northern part of the Korean Peninsula in 1890: "A good leopard skin is 9 feet 6 inches from nose to tip of tail, and the thick winter fur of [the great cat] is nearly 5 inches thick."

He was convinced that, if a hunter could "make up his mind to face the hardship and discomfort of a winter in Korea, he would, by living in a well-selected district, obtain good sport with tigers and leopards."

A Korean wedding procession in the early 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean wedding procession in the early 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

Leopard and tiger skins were valuable commodities but they weren't always available. One American visitor complained in 1887 that some mornings "the peddlers were swinging tiger and leopard skins around them and suddenly spreading them out on the lawn" and then, a few days later, there was not a skin to be bought.

Leopard skins were used by the common people in their wedding ceremonies. According to Horace N. Allen:

"During the period of betrothal, various visits are exchanged, but these are between the young people and their elders instead of between the young people themselves. All the while the bride's trousseau is being prepared with great care, and an expense dependent upon the ability of the parents and the arrangements of the marriage contract. On the occasion of these visits the bride rides in a carefully closed chair with a leopard skin thrown over the top, while the groom when going upon such an errand is mounted on a gaily-caparisoned horse. Each of course is attended by maids or men in numbers corresponding to their social position.

"When the final day arrives, the frightened young woman travels to the home of her intended, into which she is to be absorbed as one of his mother's inferiors. She goes in a chair ornamented with red and covered with a leopard skin, preceded by a procession of women servants, bareheaded and adorned with the most wonderful masses of false hair, on which rest red wrapped packages containing her trousseau and presents."

These pelts were also used by the upper class. Court officials and gentry often rode around in chairs decorated with leopard pelts. The palaces also had carpets made from leopard skins ― perhaps the most famous of these regal carpets was accidentally rescued by an American soldier during the Korean War.

Yang You-chan's (South Korean ambassador to the United States) 11-year-old daughter, Shiela, with a leopard-skin carpet believed to have once adorned Changdeok Palace. Circa 1952. Robert Neff Collection
Yang You-chan's (South Korean ambassador to the United States) 11-year-old daughter, Shiela, with a leopard-skin carpet believed to have once adorned Changdeok Palace. Circa 1952. Robert Neff Collection

While wandering the ruined streets of Seoul in April 1951, Sergeant Elverne H. Giltner noticed a Korean peddler hawking "valuable antiques" from his cart. Curious, Giltner stopped to examine the peddler's goods and was astounded to see a huge carpet ― nearly six meters long and two and a half meters wide ― made from the matched pelts of 48 leopards. The Korean peddler claimed that it had come from Changdeok Palace and was worth at least $25,000 but he would let the American have it for $25 ― about 150,000 Korean won.

Without hesitation, Giltner bought it and shipped the "pretty nice Korean rug" to his mother. The Korean embassy in the United States became aware of the carpet after seeing pictures of it in the local newspapers and demanded it be returned to Korea. Giltner agreed to return the carpet if the government could prove it was a historical heirloom. Proof was, apparently, furnished and the carpet was shipped back to Korea where it quickly became forgotten (lost).

In 2010, the carpet was rediscovered and identified as belonging to Empress Myeongseong (Queen Min). However, not everyone agreed. A plum-leaf pattern on the back clearly indicated that it had been used in the palace but this pattern was not used until after Queen Min had been assassinated in October 1895. It may not have been hers but it is still a valuable relic from the past.


A Korean official on an outing. His chair is adorned with a leopard skin. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean official on an outing. His chair is adorned with a leopard skin. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Yuri (George) M. Yankovsky and two leopards he killed in northern Korea in the mid-1930s. Sten Berman,
Yuri (George) M. Yankovsky and two leopards he killed in northern Korea in the mid-1930s. Sten Berman, "In Korean Wilds and Villages."
One cold morning in the winter of 1886, Antoinette Sontag ― a member of the Russian legation in Seoul ― opened her window to feed some of her pet pigeons and was startled to discover a huge leopard glaring at her. It bared its teeth, hissed and then sprang over the legation's walls.

A hunting party was quickly assembled and they followed the leopard's tracks (apparently through the snow) to the abandoned Mulberry Palace (Gyeonghuigung ― now occupied by the Seoul History Museum) but were unable to kill it.

It was not the only leopard to prowl within the city's walls. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, several Western visitors reported encounters with leopards. George Gilmore, an American teacher wrote:

"[During] my residence in Seoul a leopard was shot within a third of a mile of our house, and one was seen several times within a hundred yards of the same. This animal was driven into one of the old palace enclosures by the deep snows of the winter. Doubtless he hoped to make a few meals on the innumerable dogs to be found within the city limits."

Some of these leopards were huge. According to Captain A.E.J. Cavendish, a British military officer who traveled extensively through the northern part of the Korean Peninsula in 1890: "A good leopard skin is 9 feet 6 inches from nose to tip of tail, and the thick winter fur of [the great cat] is nearly 5 inches thick."

He was convinced that, if a hunter could "make up his mind to face the hardship and discomfort of a winter in Korea, he would, by living in a well-selected district, obtain good sport with tigers and leopards."

A Korean wedding procession in the early 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean wedding procession in the early 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

Leopard and tiger skins were valuable commodities but they weren't always available. One American visitor complained in 1887 that some mornings "the peddlers were swinging tiger and leopard skins around them and suddenly spreading them out on the lawn" and then, a few days later, there was not a skin to be bought.

Leopard skins were used by the common people in their wedding ceremonies. According to Horace N. Allen:

"During the period of betrothal, various visits are exchanged, but these are between the young people and their elders instead of between the young people themselves. All the while the bride's trousseau is being prepared with great care, and an expense dependent upon the ability of the parents and the arrangements of the marriage contract. On the occasion of these visits the bride rides in a carefully closed chair with a leopard skin thrown over the top, while the groom when going upon such an errand is mounted on a gaily-caparisoned horse. Each of course is attended by maids or men in numbers corresponding to their social position.

"When the final day arrives, the frightened young woman travels to the home of her intended, into which she is to be absorbed as one of his mother's inferiors. She goes in a chair ornamented with red and covered with a leopard skin, preceded by a procession of women servants, bareheaded and adorned with the most wonderful masses of false hair, on which rest red wrapped packages containing her trousseau and presents."

These pelts were also used by the upper class. Court officials and gentry often rode around in chairs decorated with leopard pelts. The palaces also had carpets made from leopard skins ― perhaps the most famous of these regal carpets was accidentally rescued by an American soldier during the Korean War.

Yang You-chan's (South Korean ambassador to the United States) 11-year-old daughter, Shiela, with a leopard-skin carpet believed to have once adorned Changdeok Palace. Circa 1952. Robert Neff Collection
Yang You-chan's (South Korean ambassador to the United States) 11-year-old daughter, Shiela, with a leopard-skin carpet believed to have once adorned Changdeok Palace. Circa 1952. Robert Neff Collection

While wandering the ruined streets of Seoul in April 1951, Sergeant Elverne H. Giltner noticed a Korean peddler hawking "valuable antiques" from his cart. Curious, Giltner stopped to examine the peddler's goods and was astounded to see a huge carpet ― nearly six meters long and two and a half meters wide ― made from the matched pelts of 48 leopards. The Korean peddler claimed that it had come from Changdeok Palace and was worth at least $25,000 but he would let the American have it for $25 ― about 150,000 Korean won.

Without hesitation, Giltner bought it and shipped the "pretty nice Korean rug" to his mother. The Korean embassy in the United States became aware of the carpet after seeing pictures of it in the local newspapers and demanded it be returned to Korea. Giltner agreed to return the carpet if the government could prove it was a historical heirloom. Proof was, apparently, furnished and the carpet was shipped back to Korea where it quickly became forgotten (lost).

In 2010, the carpet was rediscovered and identified as belonging to Empress Myeongseong (Queen Min). However, not everyone agreed. A plum-leaf pattern on the back clearly indicated that it had been used in the palace but this pattern was not used until after Queen Min had been assassinated in October 1895. It may not have been hers but it is still a valuable relic from the past.



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