Dutch court hears suit over stolen Bud­dha

Plain­tiffs from East China be­gin court case to re­trieve an 11th-cen­tury golden statue of the Bud­dha that con­tains hu­man re­mains.

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Chi­nese gov­ern­ment records do not show any ex­port per­mit for this Bud­dha.” Jan Holthuis, lawyer who rep­re­sents the Chi­nese vil­lagers in court

Chi­nese vil­lagers su­ing for the re­turn of a statue they claim was stolen from their lo­cal tem­ple have de­manded that the Dutch owner dis­close the iden­tity of the dis­puted ar­ti­fact’s new holder.

The 1.2-me­ter-high Bud­dha statue, which con­tains mum­mi­fied hu­man re­mains, was bought by Os­car van Overeem, an ar­chi­tect and ex­pe­ri­enced art col­lec­tor in Am­s­ter­dam, in 1996.

How­ever, on Fri­day, Van Overeem told a court in Am­s­ter­dam that he had ex­changed the statue for sev­eral Bud­dhist ar­ti­facts, and no longer knows where it is. He de­clined to name the new holder.

The plain­tiffs claim the 11th-cen­tury relic was stolen from a tem­ple in Yangchun vil­lage in the east­ern prov­ince of Fu­jian more than 20 years ago, and that it con­tains the mum­mi­fied re­mains of Zhang Gong, a revered Bud­dhist monk who lived dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty (960-1279).

They be­gan the process of re­trieval af­ter rec­og­niz­ing the art­work, known as the Zhang­gong Pa­tri­arch, when it was ex­hib­ited in Hun­gary in March 2015.

While Van Overeem con­ceded that the Bud­dha orig­i­nated in Fu­jian, he in­sisted it is not the statue that was stolen from the tem­ple in Yangchun.

The vil­lagers said Van Overeem had pre­vi­ously agreed to re­turn the statue if con­di­tions he stip­u­lated were met, but when ne­go­ti­a­tions failed they filed the law­suit with the Dutch courts.

The de­mand was de­bated dur­ing the first day of the court hear­ing.

The case is be­ing watched closely be­cause it could mark the first suc­cess­ful re­trieval of a Chi­nese relic via court pro­ceed­ings. Pre­vi­ous relics have been re­turned to their right­ful own­ers through diplo­matic chan­nels.

Anony­mous holder

At the hear­ing, Van Overeem stated that the new holder of the statue is a “col­lec­tor­in­vestor-in­ter­me­di­ary”, who “is aware of the mummy con­tro­versy and po­lit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties, and prefers to re­main anony­mous”.

When asked to dis­close the holder’s name, or email ex­changes that would il­lus­trate how the deal was ne­go­ti­ated and the con­di­tions un­der which the ex­change was made, he re­fused.

Rep­re­sent­ing the vil­lagers, lawyer Jan Holthuis told the court that un­der the Dutch Civil Code such an agree­ment is con­trary to good morals and an af­front to de­cency and pub­lic or­der, and is there­fore void.

He cited an email signed and sub­mit­ted by Van Overeem as proof that the col­lec­tor reached the ex­change agree­ment af­ter learn­ing that the vil­lagers had hired lawyers to take le­gal ac­tion in the Nether­lands.

“By tak­ing the statue away, the col­lec­tor caused a pre­sump­tion of a fraud­u­lent act — namely pre­vent­ing the en­force­ment of a claim to re­turn Zhang Gong, if the court would so de­cide,” Holthuis said.

Two weeks ago, the vil­lagers filed a de­mand ask­ing the court to re­quire the de­fen­dant to dis­close the iden­tity of the new holder.

In re­sponse, Van Overeem asked the court to dis­miss the vil­lagers’ de­mand im­me­di­ately on for­mal grounds. The judge re­fused and or­dered him to sub­mit a statement to chal­lenge the claim within six weeks.

“This is good. The other party has the right to make a statement on the rea­son why they think they can­not dis­close the iden­tity, and we can still re­ply to their statement. Then the judge will make a de­ci­sion on it. It might take months,” Holthuis told the me­dia.

When the iden­tity of the new holder is known, the vil­lagers will seek to make him or her part of the le­gal pro­ceed­ings to an­swer their claims that the Zhang Gong Bud­dha statue should re­turn home, he added.

Iden­tity is­sues

The nearly three-hour hear­ing­was­dom­i­nat­ed­byade­bate over the iden­tity of the statue. Is it Zhang Gong, the 11th-cen­tury monk who has been wor­shipped for generations in two Chi­nese vil­lages, or not?

“It is not their statue,” Van Overeem told Xin­hua af­ter the hear­ing.

In court he read sev­eral reports and emails and pro­duced a CT scan to show that two char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Zhang Gong statue — a hole in one of the hands and a wob­bling head — were not present in the statue he bought.

When asked about the Chi­nese char­ac­ters that read “Liu Quan” — Zhang Gong’s given name — and “Pu Zhao Tang”, the name of the vil­lage tem­ple, writ­ten on a roll of linen found in the statue, he said: “The linen was added 200, 250 years later. It is not au­to­matic proof that it be­longs to the mummy.”

When the judge in­quired about the pos­si­bil­ity of see­ing the Bud­dha to check the ev­i­dence, Van Overeem said the new holder wishes to re­main anony­mous.

Holthuis showed the court nu­mer­ous sim­i­lar­i­ties between the statue and the Zhang Gong Pa­tri­ach, ar­gu­ing that the vil­lagers are en­ti­tled to have their statue re­turned to its orig­i­nal place.

“There is ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence that Zhang Gong is Zhang Gong. Each time, Mr Van Overeem comes back to two ar­gu­ments — no hole in one hand and no loose head. But we have no in­de­pen­dent ev­i­dence, be­cause he did the CT scan and now the Bud­dha is no longer in his pos­ses­sion,” he said.

Lawyers rep­re­sent­ing the vil­lagers also used the ar­gu­ment that Dutch law states “a per­son is not al­lowed to have the corpse of an iden­ti­fi­able per­son in their pos­ses­sion”.

Van Overeem ar­gued that what was dis­cov­ered in the statue was not a “corpse” but “hu­man re­mains”, be­cause “most of the or­gans are ab­sent”.

Bur­den of proof

Holthuis ar­gued for a “re­ver­sal of the bur­den of proof”.

“Mr Van Overeem does not have a pur­chase in­voice or any doc­u­ment to show the ori­gin of the Bud­dha,” Holthuis told the court. “Chi­nese gov­ern­ment records do not show any ex­port per­mit­for­thisBud­dha.Be­sides, a per­mit to ex­port the Zhang Gong Bud­dha would never have been granted,” he said.

“A com­par­a­tive study of the statue for proof or re­turn is no longer pos­si­ble be­cause of his (Overeem’s) ac­tions.”

In­vok­ing rec­om­men­da­tions adopted by the Ekkart Com­mit­tee, a Dutch gov­ern­ment body in charge of re­turn­ing looted World War II art­works tha­tremain­inthe­hand­softhe Dutch state, Holthuis ar­gued that it is up to Van Overeem to prove that the statue is not Zhang Gong.

The com­mit­tee’s rec­om­men­da­tions are rec­og­nized by the Tweede Kamer, the lower house­oftheDutch­par­lia­ment.

Since the vil­lagers’ own­er­ship of the Bud­dha statue has been proven to a high de­gree of prob­a­bil­ity and Van Overeem has not pro­vided legally con­vincingindi­ca­tion­stothe­con­trary, “it is up to Mr Van Overeem to prove that the Bud­dha is not Zhang Gong”, Holthuis told Xin­hua.

Le­gal stand­ing

Other is­sues were also brought up in court, such as the le­gal stand­ing of the Chi­nese vil­lagers in Dutch courts, and whether or not Van Overeem bought the statue in good faith.

Van Overeem claimed that the “Chi­nese vil­lage com­mit­tee is not to be re­ferred to as a nat­u­ral per­son or le­gal per­son” un­der the Dutch Code of Civil Pro­ce­dure, and “the claimants should be de­clared in­ad­mis­si­ble in their claims”.

Holthuis later told me­dia out­lets: “We have al­ready ar­gued that the vil­lage com­mit­tee is a spe­cial le­gal per­son un­der Chi­nese law, and there is jurisprudence or case law in the Nether­lands say­ing that even when you do not have le­gal pre­sen­ta­tion in terms of a le­gal en­tity, you can still file a claim.

“A lot of is­sues in this case have no case law,” he told Xin­hua. “Each time we al­most have to in­vent the next step. But it doesn’t mean we will fail.”

Burn­ing in­cense

On Thurs­day evening, dozens of vil­lagers burned in­cense in Pu Zhao Tang, the tem­ple in Yangchun, and prayed for the re­turn of the missing statue.

In 2015, the vil­lage went through of­fi­cial and pri­vate chan­nels to ne­go­ti­ate with the Dutch col­lec­tor for the re­turn of the statue af­ter hear­ing me­dia reports that the statue be­ing dis­played at a “Mummy World” ex­hi­bi­tion at the Hun­gar­ian Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in the cap­i­tal, Budapest.

Vil­lager Lin Wen­qing said the Bud­dha had been wor­shipped in the vil­lage tem­ple for more than 1,000 years, and even though the statue is no longer there, the vil­lagers still hold a prayer rit­ual ev­ery year on Oct 5, the Bod­hid­harma Bud­dha’s birth­day ac­cord­ing to the lu­nar cal­en­dar.

Liu Quan, a lo­cal man who be­came a monk in his 20s and adopted the name Zhang Gong, won fame for help­ing peo­ple­bytreatingill­ness­esand spread­ing Bud­dhist be­liefs.

When he died at age 37, his body was mum­mi­fied as he had wished, and placed in­side the statue.

“Mas­ter Zhang Gong was fa­mous as a spir­i­tual leader, be­cause of the help he gave to those who needed it and be­cause of his pow­ers of heal­ing. Upon his death, his body was pro­tected against rot­ting through herbs and other means. There­after, the body was pro­tected with a layer of lac­quer and cov­ered with a layer of gold,” said Liu Yushen, a lawyer reg­is­tered in Bei­jing who pro­vides le­gal sup­port to the vil­lagers.

“The likely wish of monk Zhang Gong was that through mum­mi­fi­ca­tion he would con­tinue to have a spir­i­tual and heal­ing power on his en­vi­ron­ment af­ter his death, and he would cer­tainly not have agreed that his body would be­come the sub­ject of (il­le­gal) art trade,” Liu told Xin­hua.

“For vil­lagers who live in a re­gion that was the root of Bud­dhism in China, mum­mi­fi­ca­tion has a spe­cial mean­ing. It im­plies that the body of the en­light­ened Bud­dhist monk re­mains part of the hu­man world, and can still be de­filed af­ter his death by ex­ter­nal in­flu­ences. From gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, the statue is wor­shipped and the day of the monk’s death is still marked with pi­ous cer­e­monies.”

In March 2015, hun­dreds of Fu­jian res­i­dents signed a let­ter ad­dressed to Mark Rutte, prime min­is­ter of the Nether­lands, plead­ing for the re­turn of the statue.

The let­ter, writ­ten in Chi­nese and English, was handed to Euro­pean-Chi­nese groups in the Nether­lands, which de­liv­ered it via the Chi­nese em­bassy.

“We be­lieve this is the Bud­dha we have been search­ing for dur­ing the past 20 years and we look for­ward to its re­turn,” the let­ter said.


The Zhang Gong Pa­tri­arch on dis­play at the Hun­gar­ian Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in Budapest, Hun­gary, in 2015.


A vil­lager shows off the crown worn by the statue in Yangchun, Fu­jian prov­ince.


Left: A se­nior tells tourists the story of the Pu Zhao Tang Tem­ple in Yangchun. Right: Judges hear the case brought by the vil­lagers in Am­s­ter­dam on Fri­day.

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