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June 16, 2016

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Villagers in court over stolen statue

VILLAGERS from southeast China’s Fujian Province are urging a court in Amsterdam to order the return of a 1,000-year-old Buddhist mummy stolen from their temple.

It is believed to be in the possession of Dutch national Oscar van Overeem, the lawyer representing the Yangchun villagers, Jan Holthuis, told reporters.

He told the court last week that van Overeem had not acquired the statue in good faith and had no right to own the human remains of an identifiable person under Dutch law.

The collector had lent the statue with a mummified monk inside to an exhibition in Hungary in 2014. When villagers saw reports of the exhibition they believed the statue to be the “Zhanggong Patriarch” stolen from their temple more than 20 years before.

They appointed Chinese and Dutch lawyers to begin legal proceedings in China and in the Netherlands.

Holthuis said: “Van Overeem should have exercised a higher level of due diligence at the time of acquisition to check whether the object was illegally traded.”

In a statement sent to media after the statue was withdrawn from the exhibition in Hungary, a spokesman for the collector said “the owner of the mummy has been collecting Chinese art for almost three decades” and “the owner bought the sculpture in the Netherlands from a fellow collector who, at that time, was sharing his professional time between Hong Kong and Amsterdam and who was well acquainted with the local Hong Kong art scene.”

It went on: “In late 1995 in Amsterdam, the current owner noticed the statue first in the fellow collector’s collection and by mid-1996 agreed to acquire it. The previous owner shipped the statue from his Hong Kong studio to his Amsterdam residence while he, in turn, in the winter of 1994-1995 acquired the statue from a Chinese art friend in Hong Kong.”

Holthuis said that “in professional art trading circles it is known that this kind of old statue could never have been exported out of China without a permit. A professional buyer should have asked for provenance documents and export permit. Apparently, van Overeem did not.”

Holthuis said the Buddhist statue carries the human remains of an identifiable person which are 1,000 years old.

“The statue is a casket around the human remains of a person, and the Buddha statue is so much entangled with the corpse that one cannot be separated from the other. Eventually the leading part in this case is not the Buddhist art, but the human remains of the person that is in there,” said Holthuis.

“According to the Dutch Burial and Cremation Act of 1991 and the interpretation of our Minister of Justice at that time, nobody can own a corpse. Nobody can therefore own this statue even if it is acquired in good faith. According to Dutch law, the family can claim the statue back. If the family cannot, then the caretaker can,” he said.

After a statement of claims is filed in court, a defendant normally has six weeks to prepare his statement of defense. He can ask for extensions with the agreement of the other party.

The court might set a hearing and see whether they need additional information or whether they can already take a decision. Another round of statements is possible before a verdict is announced.


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