The provincial Supreme People’s Court in Fujian, China, announced on Tuesday that it would uphold a lower court’s order for Dutch art collector Oscar van Overeem to return to China a Buddhist statue he allegedly bought in 1996. The previous verdict, delivered in 2020, held that residents of Yangchun and Dongpu villages in Fujian had the legal right to demand the return of the Patriarch of Zhang Gong – a Buddhist statue containing the mummified remains of a famous monk – who died had been in a local temple for some 1,000 years before disappearing in December 1995.
Villagers claim that the statue was on display at Puzhao Temple in Sanming, Fujian. Van Overeem claims to have bought the sculpture legally in Hong Kong in 1996, but has no receipt for the purchase. The statue then disappeared from public view until it reappeared in 2015, and was recognized in an exhibit at the World Mummy Exhibition at a Budapest museum.
Lin Kaian, a Yangchun resident who was present at the court at the time of the verdict, said, “I am pleased to hear that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of our request for the statue’s return. We respect the verdict and hope the statue will be back with us as soon as possible.” Lin continued, “When the statue returns, we will still enshrine it in the temple and others, including foreigners like Oscar van Overeem, into one Invite visitors.” (ECNS)
Villagers originally filed the lawsuit in 2018 after negotiations to return the statue collapsed. They cited a Dutch law prohibiting ownership of the body of a well-known person to bring a lawsuit in the Netherlands.
Yangchun Village spokesman Lin Wen Qing said, “We grew up with the statue. He was there day and night. He is our spiritual leader. The most important thing for us is to have him back.” (The guard)
A Dutch court had previously dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the villagers were not entitled to assert their claim.
The challenge now is to implement the ruling of the Chinese court in Europe. Song Jingyi, a plainclothes attorney with Beijing-based law firm Jingsh, said the Chinese authorities could invoke the principle of reciprocity when asking Dutch officials to enforce the court’s verdict.
“I think the implementation of the judgment will take time and may even be difficult because China and the Netherlands have not yet mutually recognized the court decision agreement,” Song said. “But recovering lost cultural relics from overseas through legal processes is significant because it opens a legal route to recovering such relics and also demonstrates our country’s determination to protect the relics.” (ECNS)
If successful, the case could open the door for the return of other important cultural relics smuggled out of China and other countries.
Liu Zheng, a member of the China Cultural Relics Academy, described the villager’s claim as “comprehensive” and “credible.” (Global Times) Liu pointed out that China has acceded to the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Property, which aims to prevent the illicit trade in cultural property by applying international laws and regulations to ensure the return of stolen items.
The monk whose body is encased in the statue is Zhanggong Zushi, originally named Zhang Qisan, a Buddhist monk during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279). The practice of gilding and conserving respected monks – rare in Buddhist history – has led to the creation of highly venerated religious objects.
Dutch collector asked to return Buddha statue (ECNS)
‘Our Spiritual Guide’: Chinese villagers appeal for return of 1,000-year-old monk (The guard)
Chinese court orders Dutch collector to return smuggled 1,000-year-old mummified Buddha statue (Global Times)
Chinese court orders Dutch collector to return Buddha statue (The Seattle Times)
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