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Spotlight: Mummy Buddha should be restituted according to ethical principle over human remains: experts

by Xinhua writer Liu Fang

THE HAGUE, March 21 (Xinhua) -- A 1000-year-old Buddha statue with a mummified monk inside, now in possession of a Dutch private collector, should be restituted if the Chinese villagers prove it was the one stolen from their temple, experts on cultural heritage in the Netherlands have said.

The statue should return to its original owner, especially when the ethical principle is concerned that human remains should be repatriated to their original country, experts have said.

If the real owner, or the original owner, can prove that the statue was theirs and had been stolen, they can file a civil law suit in the Netherlands, according to Dr. Inge C. van der Vlies, professor of constitutional and public law and art and law at the University of Amsterdam.

"It is possible that they will win the case," the professor said, adding that a law suit always takes much time and is very expensive. "The best solution is to do it in a diplomatic way," she said.

"Since it has human remains, I am convinced that the Dutch government will not consider it a good case that it stays in the Netherlands," said the professor, who is also vice-chair of the Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Applications for Items of Cultural Value and the Second World War.

However, she believed the Dutch government does not have a direct influence because it is a private law issue. "But I think the human remains are an important issue," she said.

The Buddha statue was on a "Mummy World" exhibition at the Hungarian Natural History Museum that opened in October last year and was originally scheduled to be on display till May 17.

Villagers in Yangchun, in China's southeastern province of Fujian, believed the Buddha statue was the one stolen from the village temple in 1995. Some of the villagers burst into tears while some played fireworks upon seeing the statue via TV news.

"He is our 'zushi' (a Chinese appellation of respect for both 'ancestor' and 'master'). The only difference is that he wore a hat and clothes when sitting in our temple, now he is nude in a foreign exhibition. When I was a boy, the whole village paid tribute to him at every traditional festivals," a villager in his 30s told China Central Television (CCTV), China's national television broadcaster.

According to Yangchun archives, the monk lived in the village in China's Song Dynasty (960-1279). As a master of Chinese herbal medicine, he helped cure a lot of people. When he died, his body was mummified and local people made a statue with the mummy inside. The statue had been worshipped in the village temple ever since.

The Hungarian Natural History Museum borrowed the statue from the Drents Museum in Assen, the Netherlands. On Friday, the Dutch owner withdrew the statue from exhibition without giving any reason. Dr. Vincent van Vilsteren, curator of the Drents Museum, did not comment on this decision when contacted by Xinhua on Friday evening.

"The statue belongs to a Dutch private collector who bought it legally in 1996. The collector prefers to stay anonymous," Dr.van Vilsteren said in an interview with Xinhua on Thursday.

"After the statue was acquired by the owner, it has been carefully restored. So it is now in perfect condition. Especially for the Buddha mummy, a special crate has been built for the transport. This crate meets the highest standards of international museum logistics. So it could not be better protected than it is now," he added.

Dr. van Vilsteren acknowledged that before the interview with Xinhua, the Drents museum was not aware of the reports that a Chinese village claims ownership of this statue. He agreed to transfer the message to the owner.

The curator also mentioned that researchers had already known the existence of mummy inside the statue two years ago, but the press did not pay much attention at that time.

"A discovery of a Buddha mummy in Mongolia about one and a half month ago has triggered all this sudden publicity. People found out a news, which is no news, of the mummy Buddha which is in our museum," he said.

In a catalogue that the Drents Musuem published in February 2014 on the occasion of its exhibition, a chapter presents a full description of research on this statue. A CT scan done at a medical center in Amsterdam confirmed that inside the statue was a mummy of a 30-to-40-year-old monk who lived around 1100 A.D.. The pillow on which the statue sits carries Chinese characters giving the name of the monk as "liu quan", or "six perfections".

As to calls from Chinese villagers to restitute their Buddha, a Chinese PhD student on cultural heritage law in the Netherlands, Ms. Liu Zuozhen, told Xinhua that neither the 1970 UNESCO Convention nor the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention can be applied to this case.

"It is true that both the Netherlands and China are contracting parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. China acceded to the Convention on November 28, 1989; Netherlands acceded to the Convention on July 17, 2009. If it is confirmed that the statue was stolen from China in 1995 and brought to the Netherlands in 1996, I am afraid that the Convention cannot be applied to the case," said Liu.

"Since the Netherlands only accepted the 1970 Convention in 2009 and the Convention is of no retroactive effect, from a legal point of view, the Netherlands is only obliged to conform to the Convention after the entry of force of this convention in both States," she said.

"As to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on the Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, the Netherlands signed it in 1996, but it has not ratified it. That means this Convention is not legally binding on the Netherlands either," said the researcher.

However, though the Netherlands does have national Civil Code to protect personal property, it also accedes to international conventions of protecting cultural heritage as well as its national implementation law, and the EU regulations are also binding on the Netherlands, insisted Ms. Liu.

"In addition to the hard law, museums should also comply with their professional ethical guidelines, like the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Code of Ethics, which provides that museums should not acquire objects by purchase, gift, loan, bequest or exchange unless a valid title is satisfied. In other words, the Drents Museum, if it is a member of ICOM, should not exhibit a stolen object", she said.

Echoing Dr. Inge C. van der Vlies, Liu agreed that Chinese individuals or cultural groups can choose to sue the present owner in a Dutch court but civil litigation is always expensive and time consuming.

"It is much more convenient and practical to deal with this case on a state-to-state level through diplomatic negotiation," she said.

In the Netherlands, there is a consensus, as in many other European countries, that Nazi-looted art should be given back to their rightful owner. The Dutch people also have sympathy for the former colonized people. The Dutch government returned some cultural objects to Indonesia in the 1970s.

The most recent case of restitution is the return of four icons to Cyprus in 2013 by the Netherlands under the First Protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention.

The four icons belong to the Church of Christ Antiphonitis located in the village of Kalograia, District of Keryneia, Cyprus. During the events of 1974, most of the murals of the church were cut into pieces, and the icons as well as the doors of the sanctuary were removed.

In May 1995, the icons were found in the possession of a Dutch citizen who had bought them from a collector shortly after the invasion of 1974. The Church of Cyprus, as the owner of the icons and under the provisions of the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, brought an action before the court of Rotterdam to request repatriation.

At that time the Dutch judges concluded that on the basis of the existing law of the Netherlands, the icons could not be returned under civil law. The international legislation on which a return could be based, the First Protocol to the Hague Convention of UNESCO, did not have a direct binding effect on Dutch citizens.

"When it appeared that the Dutch law was inadequate in this respect, the Dutch Government found it of utmost importance to repair this omission. This resulted in the Cultural Property Originating from Occupied Territory (Return) Act of 2007. In the Act, rules and regulations are established for cases when cultural property originating from an occupied territory is imported into the Netherlands, or is in one's possession in the Netherlands; this is forbidden", UNESCO praised the Netherlands in a document on its official website.

On Sept. 18, 2013, the Director General of Culture and Media of the Netherlands officially handed over the four icons to the Ambassador of Cyprus.

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