Chinese villagers go to Dutch court to fight for return of Buddha statue

Photo: Drents Museum

A group of Chinese villagers have taken their claim for the return of a golden Buddha statue which contains a mummified body to a Dutch court.

The legal battle, which began on Friday, centres on a 1.2 metre high Buddha currently in the hands of a Dutch collector, who has refused to return it. The villagers say it was stolen from them 22 years ago.

Representatives from the Yangchun village, in southeast China’s Fujian province, hired a team of lawyers to sue the Dutch collector two years ago after he refused to return the statue.

Questions about the 1,000 year old Buddha’s ownership arose when it became the star item in a show at the Hungarian natural history museum in Budapest in 2015. Pictures of the Buddha were shown on a Chinese news programme, leading villagers in Yangchun to claim it had been stolen from their temple in 1995.

The current owner claimed in 2015 to have bought it for 40,000 guilders (around €18,000) in 1996 from another collector. He is said to have acquired it in late 1994 or early 1995 from a Chinese artist friend, the NRC said at the time.

The statue contains the mummified body of a monk, who the villagers claim is local man Zhanggong Zushi.


‘I am very confident we will win the case,’ lawyer Liu Yang told the Telegraph newspaper ahead of the first day of the trial. ‘The statue belongs to the villagers and I think that the Dutch owner should act in a graceful way to take himself out of a predicament.’

The current owner, named by the Volkskrant as Oscar van Overeem, told the court that after two attempts to reach a settlement failed, he had now swapped the Buddha with another collector.

‘He is Chinese, lives abroad and has a large collection of Buddhas,’ the Volkskrant quoted him as saying. It is extremely unlikely the new owner will take the Buddha back to China, he said. ‘I think that will only happen if you rule that the statue is indeed not Zhanggong.’