A mummified monk inside a golden Buddha statue is at the center of an international dispute—over who owns it.
Inside the gold figure is the mummified body of Chinese Buddhist monk Qisan Zhang, who was left preserved for generations at a Chinese temple. But villagers claim that the statue was stolen and they are applying international pressure to get it returned.
They’ve now taken the current owner of the statue to court over it, AFR reported. A Dutch court will now hear the case.
They claim the statue—and with it, the monk, who is believed to have lived about 1,000 years ago during the Song Dynasty—were “stolen” in 1995. It was most recently displayed in the Natural History Museum in Budapest, but it is owned by a private collector, architect Oscar van Overeem.
The monk is believed to have been a healer who knew herbal remedies. Locals say he was able to heal people.
Studies have revealed that he died at the age of 37 and showed signs of starvation. According to The Economist’s writeup on the statue: “The profound knowledge of herbal remedies he acquired there won him fame and affection. He was so pious that he earned the honorific title of ‘Gong’ (Lord) and became known as Zhang Gong. He was—and is—considered a bodhisattva: one capable of attaining nirvana, but who chooses to remain in the physical world out of compassion for humanity.”
In 2013 a CAT scan carried out by the German Mummy Project identified the perfectly preserved mummified remains inside the statue, albeit with the organs missing.
But on that fateful day in 1995, it was claimed, the statue was stolen and bought by a collector in the night. Local workers saw a van traveling slowly through the village, according to the Economist. They looked inside and apparently saw a figure covered in a blanket—and they believed it was someone in need of medical attention.
Van Overeem said that in late 1995, he saw the statue in a storage facility in Amsterdam, adding that a businessman had purchased it at a market in Hong Kong at the start of the year before it was shipped to the Netherlands.
A few years later, it was discovered that the statue actually contained a mummy. Scans were done at a hospital to determine the authenticity of those claims.
“Then we tested the mummy itself—and then we were really confused,” said Van Overeem.
“A Ming statue can [fetch] nowadays, let’s say, between €20,000 ($22,000) and €100,000,” added Van Overeem. “But a Song-dynasty statue? Even in those days, millions.” He added that his statue was actually “the rarest of the rarest.”
Later, in 2015, he swapped it with an anonymous collector “specializing in Buddhist sculptures: very powerful, very rich,” the publication reported. Now, the mummy’s location is a secret. “I cannot deliver that statue, no matter what,” Van Overeem said.
The mummy was found sitting on a bundle of cloth that was covered in Chinese writing, reports said. But how he was mummified is somewhat of a mystery. He may have gone through the practice of self-mummification, popular in Japan, China, and Thailand over 1,000 years ago. The remains may have deteriorated and later been placed inside a statue.
“It was not uncommon for monks to practice self-mummification, but to find a mummified monk inside a statue is really extraordinary,” Wilfrid Rosendahl, a German palaeontologist who led the research, told the Telegraph. “It’s the only known example in the world.
The monk was found sitting in the lotus position, researchers added.
“During the last weeks he would have started eating less food and drinking only water. Eventually he would have gone into a trance, stopped breathing, and died. He basically starved himself to death,” Rosendahl said.
“The other monks would have put him close to a fire to dry him out and put him on display in the monastery, we think somewhere in China or Tibet.”
“He was probably sitting for 200 years in the monastery and the monks then realized that he needed a bit of support and preservation so they put him inside the statue.”