APRIL 22, 2001

Canada returns Buddhist piece to China

By R. Senthilnathan

THE return of the priceless sculpture of a luohan, a Buddhist holy man, to a cave temple in the Yi River in China will end a cycle that began with its plunder.

But for Canada, it is the beginning of a new code of ethics that stresses not possessing stolen artworks from other nations.

The director of the National Gallery of Canada, Mr Pierre Theberge, handed over the 84.3-cm tall limestone sculpture, which sat on the shelves of the gallery for more than 30 years, to the Chinese government on Thursday.

The luohan - or Arhat in Sanskrit - was carved by an unknown artist into a cave, called Longmen Caves, in the east side of Yi River, about 800 km south-west of Beijing.

This was done sometime around 720 AD, during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian at the peak of the Tang dynasty.

The luohan is a fragment of the full-length luohans carved into the Kanjing Si, a cave temple commissioned by the Empress.

The east bank of the Yi area is considered as one of the greatest artistic complexes of China, and the Longmen Caves consist of more than 1,300 decorative grottoes and niches, which have about 100,000 statues ranging from 2 cm to 17 m.

Many of the sculptures were pillaged and destroyed by antiquarians in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gallery said.

Nobody is certain how the sculpture left China in the first place.

Chinese Ambassador to Canada Mei Ping was quoted by local media as saying that the sculpture might have been looted by foreign treasure hunters during the infamous opium wars of the 19th century.

However, gallery spokesman Marie Lugli said the photograph, taken in 1934, of the cave showed the Arhat intact, which would mean it was stolen some time later, probably during or after World War II.

The sculpture was part of a Chinese art collection put together by a British collector.

The holy man made its way to the US, into the hands of a collector there.

Both pieces were donated to the gallery in 1978 by a Canadian collector who had bought them from his US counterpart.

This is the first time the Canadian gallery is returning an artefact under its new code of ethics that stresses the return of stolen artworks.

Canada is not alone in its endeavour to return stolen artworks.

Worldwide, museums are looking into the problem, particularly those pieces that were looted during the Nazi regime in Europe and then sold.

The Canadian gallery is currently seeking 'information' on 110 pieces of the 45,000 artworks it holds.

'It is not that they were stolen, but we want to be sure of that,' Ms Lugli explained.

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