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Villagers demand name of stolen statue owner

A GROUP of Chinese villagers have told a court in Amsterdam that a Dutch collector must disclose the identity of a disputed statue’s new owner.

The Buddha statue, with an intact mummified body inside, was bought by Amsterdam collector Oscar van Overeem in 1996. He now says he swapped it for several Buddhist art objects.

When it went on display at an exhibition in Hungary in March 2015, the villagers in southeast China’s Fujian Province recognized it as the Zhang Gong statue that had been stolen from their temple.

Van Overeem agreed the Buddha statue had come from Fujian, but insisted it was not the one that had been stolen.

At one time, however, he agreed to return it if certain conditions were met. But when negotiations failed, the villagers filed a lawsuit.

At the hearing on Friday, van Overeem said the statue was now in the hands of a “collector-investor-intermediary,” who “is aware of the mummy controversy and political sensitivities and prefers to remain anonymous.”

An ‘affront to decency’

Asked to disclose the name of the new owner, or e-mail exchanges that reflected the deal that had been done and the conditions under which there was an exchange, he refused.

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

The lawyer cited an e-mail signed and submitted by van Overeem as proof which states that the Dutch collector reached the agreement when he learned 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 owner.

Van Overeem’s call for the demand to be dismissed was rejected by the judge, who instead ordered him to submit a statement to challenge the claim within six weeks.

After the hearing, Holthuis told reporters: “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.”

When the new owner is known, the villagers will seek to make him part of the legal proceedings to answer their claims that the Zhang Gong Buddha statue should be returned.

The nearly three-hour hearing also debated the identity of the statue.

Is he 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 said after the hearing.

In court he produced several reports, e-mails and a CT scan to show that a hole in the hand and a wobbling head, two characteristics of the Zhang Gong statue, did not exist in the statue he had bought.

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

Holthuis, however, showed the court numerous similarities between the statue and Zhang Gong.

He told reporters later: “Each time Mr van Overeem comes back to two arguments — no hole in one hand and no loose head. But we have no independent investigation because he did the CT scan, and now the Buddha is no longer in his possession.”

He had told the court: “Mr Van Overeem does not have a purchase invoice, nor any document to show the origin of the Buddha. Registers of the Chinese government do not show any export permit for this Buddha. Besides, a permit for export of the Zhang Gong Buddha would never have been granted.

“A comparative study of the statue for proof or return is no longer possible because of his actions,” he added.

The lawyer said it was up to van Overeem to prove that the statue is not the stolen Zhang Gong.


 

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