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Myanmar Buddha sculpture returns home after wild ride

An 11th-century Buddha was returned to Myanmar after two decades abroad. Several Southeast Asian countries - including Myanmar and Cambodia - are trying to reclaim cultural artifacts.

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Buddhist devotees pour water on a Buddha statue at the Shwedagon Pagoda on Oct 10, 2013, in Yangon, Myanmar.

Khin Maung Win/AP

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In 1989, four ancient sculptures were taken from a pagoda near Bagan, a city in central Myanmar known for its 11th-century religious structures and artifacts. One of the sculptures, a damaged sandstone Buddha measuring less than two feet tall, is widely regarded by scholars as an integral part of Myanmar's Buddhist heritage.

The sculpture then went for a ride. In 1990, a San Francisco-based art dealer imported it to the United States. It was later seized by the FBI in New York City, exhibited at a university in Illinois for several years, and in 2012 sent to Paris at the order of Myanmar's ambassador to France.

But it recently came home to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and now sits on a pedestal on an upper floor of the national museum. "It's priceless," Daw Nu Mra Zan, special advisor to Myanmar's museums, said recently as she admired the sculpture. "I'm happy that a lot of people made an effort to return it." 

Scholars say the repatriation of the sculpture is a rare achievement at a time when many of Myanmar's artifacts are vulnerable to either damage at the hands of developers or theft by looters dreaming of big paydays in the global art or antiquities markets.  

The Italian government donated 400,000 euros ($550,000) in 2011 to a one-year United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) project to safeguard Myanmar's cultural heritage, and Myanmar's government is now eager to focus on improving conservation and management at Bagan and other culturally important sites, UNESCO said in February.

However, the country's loosely protected ancient artworks are still vulnerable to theft, particularly as some in the antiquities trade develop newfound interest in Myanmar art, says Catherine Raymond, a professor at Northern Illinois University who played a central role in the sculpture's repatriation.

"Contemporary art [in Myanmar] is a rising star, but the dark side is the trafficking of antiquities," she says, adding that the trade has been "flourishing" for the last decade. 

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Efforts by governments worldwide to reclaim ancient objects from western auctioneers or museums often are complicated by legal battles.

In mainland Southeast Asia, controversy has centered recently on ancient sculptures from Cambodia. Two of them were returned to that country in June by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. But another is still the focal point of an acrimonious dispute between federal prosecutors and the auctioneer Sotheby's, which refuses to give the sculpture up.

Smuggled and seized 

In the early 1990s, the Buddha sculpture that was recently repatriated to Myanmar went through a similar legal ordeal.

It was smuggled out of the country, then known as Burma, in violation of Burmese law and without an export permit, according to an account written by James C. Daulton, the lawyer who represented the Myanmar government in a 1994 civil suit against a San Francisco art dealer, Richard K. Diran.

Mr. Diran, who brought the sculpture to the United states in 1990, consigned it for an auction scheduled for October 1991, court documents show. But he relinquished his claim after the FBI impounded the sculpture and brought a civil suit against him. 

"The victory thus provides a disincentive to would-be participants in the illegal trade in south and southeast Asian antiquities," Mr. Daulton wrote after the sculpture was recovered.

In 1995, the sculpture was transferred to Northern Illinois University for safekeeping because Myanmar's political situation at the time was far from stable, and it was unclear whether the sculpture would fall into safe hands upon its return, says Raymond, who directs the university's centre for Burma studies. 

The sculpture's hand gestures and standing posture are highly unusual in Buddhist iconography, and they were designed to symbolize the political power of an ancient Bagan kingdom, Ms. Raymond says. 

The sculpture "sent a message of putting in place Buddhism as – I won't say state religion – but the main religion in Burma since the 11th century," she explains. "And it never went away." Today roughly 90 percent of Myanmar's 50 million people are Buddhist, according to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Raymond says she wanted to return the statue to Myanmar since she took charge of the university's Myanmar art collection in 2004, but the country's civil unrest in 2007 and a devastating cyclone in 2008 delayed her efforts. 

The breakthrough came a few years later, when Raymond, who is a French citizen, met U Kyaw Zwar Min, Myanmar's ambassador to France, on a visit to Paris. At the ambassador's urging, Myanmar's government later agreed to donate $2,000 for transporting the sculpture home. 

Last November, after stopping for a few weeks in Paris, the sculpture arrived at Myanmar's national museum. And it was on display there in February when Ms. Raymond and a delegation of academics from American universities attended a hand-over ceremony.

The group that greeted them included museum officials, local journalists, Myanmar's minister of culture, and archaeologists from the Bagan Archaeology Museum. 

The archeologists had brought a surprise: The lower part of the Buddha's torso, which had broken off during the 19th century earthquake. The sculpture's two parts were, after nearly a quarter century, finally reunited.

"The moment was an incredible one," recalls Christopher McCord, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University, who traveled to Myanmar with Ms. Raymond. "And Catherine, rightly, was a rock star."

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