Dutch collector faces Chinese villagers in lawsuit over Buddha statue

Chinese Mummy Scan
Willem 1, Buddhist mummy. Statue (L), CT scan (R). (Photos: Drents Museum). (Willem 1, Buddhist mummy. Statue (L), CT scan (R). (Photos: Drents Museum))

On Friday the Amsterdam court held the first day of trial in a lawsuit over a Buddha statue containing a mummy. A group of Chinese villagers sued Dutch collector Oscar van Overeem claiming that the statue in his possession was stolen from their village, YangChun, in 1995, the Volkskrant reports.

According to the villagers, the mummy inside the statue is that of patriarch Zhanggong. The monk's body was entombed in the Buddha statue and was the village's pride and joy until it was stolen in December 1995. The villagers became of what they believe to be the stolen statue two years ago, when photos of it displayed in the Drenths Museum were shown on Chinese state television.

Van Overeem told the court that he was very willing to return the statue to the village when the villagers identified it as Zhanggong, until doubts about the legitimacy of the claim were raised. Two journalists, one Chinese the other American, noted that Zhanggong's head was damaged during a procession in the village and afterwards repaired, according to him. showed that it wasn't damaged in this way. He therefore believes there is a case of mistaken identity here. 

Despite this, Van Overeem still tried to reach an agreement with the Chinese government on returning the statue and mummy to China. But the Chinese would not agree to his demands, such as reasonable compensation for all the costs he made around the statue, he told the court. 

When a second proposal to the Chinese government was rejected, Van Overeem decided he had enough. He exchanged the Buddha statue and mummy with an unnamed businessman, and received a number of other statues in return. "He is Chinese himself, lives abroad and has a large collection of Buddhist statues", was all Van Overeem would say about the new owner of the statue. 

According to Van Overeem, he took up collecting Buddha statues as a fun hobby, never dreaming that it would create such a mess. Due to his hobby, he is now an internationally reviled figure. "It cost me a lot of negative energy, money and business too, because I got a lot of negative press", he said, according to the Volkskrant. He hopes the court will rule that the mummy involved is not Zhanggong.