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Return of a Statue Signals Change

Developing countries seek better methods to regain stolen treasures

WHILE cultural property has long been looted from poor nations, some of these countries are now fighting hard to get articles back.

In 1989, a 1,000 year-old Buddha disappeared from its niche in an 11th-century temple in Pagan, the ancient capital city of Burma (also known as Myanmar).

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In 1990, a San Francisco art dealer imported the 22-inch-high statue into the United States and consigned it to Sotheby's auction house. Several readers of Sotheby's catalog recognized the statue. When Sotheby's learned the piece was stolen, it was removed from auction. A criminal investigation ensued, but no convictions resulted. A judge ruled the property was Burma's.

``I believe this is the first time a Southeast Asian nation has litigated a cultural-property case in the US,'' says Jack Daulton, a lawyer with Davidson Goldstein Mandell & Menkes in Chicago, who represented Burma.

He expects there will be more. ``As Southeast Asia opens up to the West, the problems of cultural property being taken are becoming acute,'' Mr. Daulton says. ``Consciousness is being raised about the importance of hanging on to cultural property - both to tourism and national identity. Once you take away cultural heritage, there's nothing left.''

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