On 31 October 2018, the Amsterdam District Court dealt with additional evidence that was submitted by the plaintiffs in the controversial Chinese mummy Buddha statue case. The Chinese statue has been at the centre of a highly politicised international legal dispute for over two years now.
The rare mummy dates back to the Song dynasty (960-1279) and is believed to contain the human remains of Monk Master Zhang Gong. The defendant, Dutch art collector Oscar van Overeem, claims to have purchased the statue in 1996 from art dealer Benjamin Rustenburg, who recently passed away. Only after the purchase, an x-ray examination revealed a human skeleton inside the statue.
Van Overeem could not believe his luck. The neglected, dirty and heavily damaged statue that was believed to date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) suddenly turned out to be a very rare mummy from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) with a market value of up to several tens of millions of euros. After this incredible discovery, the mummy was brought to the attention of experts and displayed at the travelling exhibition Mummies – overleven na de dood (Mummies – surviving after death) at the Drents Museum from February 2014.
What should have been the highlight of Van Overeem’s collection of ancient Chinese art would become a real headache for the collector. By the end of 2014, the statue was loaned to the Natural History Museum in Budapest for the exhibition Mummy World. It generated major media attention and in March 2015, photos of the statue, including the x-rays, reached the inhabitants of Yangchun, a village in the South-eastern Chinese province of Fujian. They immediately recognised it as being the lost statue comprising the human remains of their spiritual leader. According to the villagers, the statue was stolen from a local temple in 1995. Since then, Van Overeem has been under increasing pressure to return the statue to the community of Yangchun.
Van Overeem agreed to initiate communication with Chinese government officials to negotiate the return of the statue, but it proved to be an extensive and difficult endeavour. After several proposals to the Chinese government were rejected, Van Overeem decided to get rid of the statue as it already cost him “a lot of negative energy, money and business”. In November 2015, he entered into a swap agreement with an unidentified businessman who was completely aware of the legal issues surrounding the statue. In exchange for the Buddha statue, Van Overeem received eight other statues in return, of which two have already been sold.
In May 2016, a lawsuit was filed by the village committees of Yangchun and DongPu (plaintiffs) against Van Overeem before the Amsterdam District Court. Plaintiffs are asking the Dutch judges to order the return of the Buddha statue to the temple from which it was stolen in 1995, despite the defendant’s claim that he does not possess the statue anymore. Plaintiffs argue that Van Overeem should have conducted due diligence at the time of acquisition in order to act in good faith. If Van Overeem had done this, he would have known about the problematic provenance of the object. As Van Overeem did not know about the provenance, this is presented as evidence that he acted in bad faith. Consequently, the plaintiffs argue that a limitation period of twenty years should apply to this case, which has not yet expired. Furthermore, plaintiffs rely on the Dutch Burial Act (Wet op de lijkbezorging) for their claim that trade in human remains is prohibited.
In the 1990s, China suffered extensive looting of its cultural heritage and Hong Kong was considered one of the world’s major markets for the trade in looted artefacts. Leading magazines on Asian art already published articles about the increasing trade in Asian looted artefacts and the importance of due diligence. Van Overeem has failed to conduct (provenance) research prior to the acquisition of the Buddha statue and is unable to provide the original sales agreement, receipts or other evidential documents of the transaction. Furthermore, the trade in artefacts dated to the Ming dynasty is subject to severe export restrictions. Plaintiffs argue that this lack of due diligence is unacceptable – all the more so because Van Overeem should be classified as a professional art dealer and is therefore subject to more strict due diligence requirements.
Van Overeem argues that due diligence requirements did not yet apply in the 1990’s and strongly contests plaintiffs’ assertion that he should be classified as an art dealer: “I am a full-time architect and do not have the time to sell works of art”. He states that he has been a passionate collector for the past twenty-five years and has only sold between ten and fifteen statues, which he deems “hardly a lucrative trade”. In response, one of the judges pointed out that this depends on the sale price. Van Overeem has been involved in prestigious interior designing projects which included the creation of exhibition spaces for art galleries and private collectors. Some of his clients purchased Asian artefacts from Van Overeem’s extensive collection. This makes it look like the art trading was an adjunct to his main business.
Although plaintiffs’ allegation that Van Overeem did not acquire the Buddha statue in good faith is substantiated with valid arguments, Dutch jurisprudence shows that similar factual circumstances did not suffice to establish bad faith. The Court is expected to present its judgment on the 12th of December 2018. It will be interesting to see whether the judges will set a new precedent or follow the status quo. On top of this, the judges are faced with the difficult task of determining whether the statue in question is in fact the stolen artefact from the community of Yangchun.
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