Chinese villagers ask Dutch court to order return of revered mummy

  • Zhanggong Patriarch resurfaced in Hungary in 2015, 19 years after it was taken from temple
  • Dutch collector tells court statue was exchanged with Chinese enthusiast
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 1:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 7:06pm

Chinese villagers embroiled in a fight for the ownership of the 1,000-year-old mummified remains of a monk went to court in the Netherlands on Wednesday for what they hope will be a resolution of the case.

The people of Yangchun in Fujian province accused Dutch collector Oscar van Overeem of buying the Buddha statue containing the monk in Hong Kong in 1996.

“We grew up with the statue. He was there day and night. He is our spiritual leader,” Yangchun village spokesman Lin Wenqing said after lawyers closed their arguments at Amsterdam District Court.

“For us, it is the most important thing to have him back.” Lin, 42, was one of six villagers who travelled from China to attend the hearing in the Dutch capital.

The village is asking judges to rule that the human-sized Buddha statue be returned to the temple from where it was taken in 1995 and where it was revered for centuries.

Fujian villagers wait for verdict in bid for return of beloved Buddhist mummy

Until its disappearance, the mummy was enshrined and worshipped by both Yangchong village and neighbouring Dongpu village since the Song dynasty (960-1279).

Missing for two decades, the statue – called the Zhanggong Patriarch – resurfaced when in 2015 villagers recognised it as part of a display at the Mummy World Exhibition at Budapest’s Natural History Museum in Hungary.

A scan of the statue revealed a skeleton inside, said to be that of a monk who lived nearly a millennium ago.

The villagers have brought a closely watched case which could mark one of the first successful retrievals of Chinese relics in court.

They said they were convinced that the statue which Van Overeem bought was their idol.

“There is a very special bond between the villagers and the statue,” their lawyer, Jan Holthuis, told the judges.

Van Overeem told the court he did not have the statue, which he said he exchanged with a Chinese collector in 2015.

“I swapped the statue in a transaction. I was happy to hear that it would go back to China,” Van Overeem told the judges, adding that he did not know the identity of the collector with whom he did the swap.

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He also rejected Holthuis’ claims that he was a dealer in Chinese art and bought the statue in Hong Kong, a known destination for stolen artefacts, in 1996.

“I’m an architect and a passionate collector. But I’m not a dealer,” Van Overeem said. He said he did not know where the statue was.

But Holthuis disagreed.

He accused Van Overeem and the statue’s new owner of “conspiring to make the Buddha mummy disappear to make sure that the claimants cannot take action”.

Judges will deliver their ruling on December 12.

Earlier retrievals of Chinese artefacts have taken place through diplomatic channels.

Beijing in recent years has protested the sale of artefacts that it said were stolen, particularly in the 19th century when European powers began encroaching on Chinese territory.