Fight over 1,000-year-old Chinese 'mummy Buddha' hits Dutch court

The case involving a Dutch collector and a group of Chinese villagers involves a Buddha statue from China that conceals the remains of a monk who turned himself into a mummy almost a millennium ago.
The case involving a Dutch collector and a group of Chinese villagers involves a Buddha statue from China that conceals the remains of a monk who turned himself into a mummy almost a millennium ago.PHOTO: REUTERS

THE HAGUE (AFP) - A court in the Netherlands will hear on Friday (July 14) arguments involving ownership of a 1,000-year-old mummified monk, in a case brought against a Dutch collector by Chinese villagers.

The small eastern Chinese village of Yangchun will square off against the Dutch collector, whom they said bought the stolen Buddha statue containing the remains of a monk in Hong Kong in 1996, a lawyer representing the village said.

The human-sized sitting Buddha statue, called the "Zhanggong Patriarch", disappeared from a temple in Yangchun in late 1995 after being worshipped there for centuries, Mr Jan Holthuis said.

"We are going to present our arguments to a judge to explain why the villagers want their statue back," he told Agence France-Presse.

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The villagers had claimed that their ancestor was stolen.

Missing for two decades, the Buddha statue resurfaced when villagers in 2015 recognised it as part of a display at the "Mummy World Exhibition" at Budapest's Natural History Museum.

The statue was subsequently withdrawn.

Relatives of the monk - who Mr Holthuis says have written proof of their family ties - are entitled to have their ancestor returned to his rightful place, the lawyer said.

The lawyers will argue that according to Dutch law "a person is not allowed to have a known body in their possession", Mr Holthuis said.

"We also have enough evidence to prove that the statue is indeed the one that was stolen from the temple," he added.

"The fact that it was sold a few months after it was stolen, that it contains certain texts referring to the name 'Zhanggong' and that its dating more-or-less corresponds to the period that the monk was alive," were some of the arguments which will be presented, he said.

However, the statue's immediate whereabouts are not known as the original collector allegedly swapped it with a third party in 2015, Mr Holthuis said.

The Amsterdam-based collector's lawyers declined to comment.

The case is being closely watched as it could mark one of the first successful retrievals of Chinese relics in court, the Chinese newspaper Global Times reported on Tuesday (July 11).

Previously, similar retrievals have been done through diplomatic channels, the state-run paper said.

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