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NIU Burma Studies directors rescue, return 1,000-year-old Buddha statue to Myanmar

April 1, 2013

Buddha statueIt could be the opening scene of a new Indiana Jones blockbuster, complete with a storybook setting that is rich in both mystery and archaeological treasures.

After all, more than 2,000 temples and shrines dot the landscape of Bagan, the ancient royal capital of Myanmar. It was here in 1988, amid the country’s political unrest, that a nearly 1,000-year-old statue of a rare standing Buddha went missing, snatched from a remote temple cave.

So begins the saga of its return, a story that spans nearly a quarter century.

The priceless sculpture would travel from Myanmar (also known as Burma) to Bangkok, then to San Francisco, New York and DeKalb. It would be saved from the auction block, draw the involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and become the subject of a precedent-setting lawsuit.

And thanks to some super sleuthing by a now retired Northern Illinois University professor, the legal expertise of an NIU alumnus and the persistence of a current NIU professor, the stolen statue finally made its way home just recently.

“This is a remarkable story,” says Christopher McCord, dean of NIU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

At its core are Richard Cooler, professor emeritus of art history and founder and former director of the Center for Burma Studies, and Catherine Raymond, the center’s current director.

McCord calls them heroes.

“During a period of great tension between the U.S. and Myanmar governments, NIU faculty members went out of their way to preserve Myanmar’s cultural heritage and fight against the trade in stolen antiquities. They then worked to ensure that the statue was cared for and safely returned to the country in a way that would preserve its historic and religious value.”

‘Turning the Wheel of The Law’

Buddha statueThe sandstone sculpture, with traces of stucco and red paint, is just 22-inches tall.

“Only 11 images of this iconographic type are known and all were created for the Burmese King Kyanzittha, who reigned from 1084 to 1112,” Cooler says. “They depict a Buddha who, while standing, gestures with both hands in front of his chest. This gesture symbolizes the Buddha’s first and most important sermon, known as ‘Turning the Wheel of The Law,’ in which he shared his discovery of the path to Nirvana.”

When the historical Buddha, Gautama, is depicted preaching his First Sermon, he is always shown seated. Cooler says that because this image is standing, it could also be a representation of King Kyanzittha telling his people that he will “open the gates to heaven and let all enter,” as he had stated at his coronation. Or, the image could represent the king delivering his first sermon after his rebirth as a Future Buddha.

“I have concluded from an extensive survey of the sculptural program in each of Kyanzittha’s temples that these images are deliberately ambiguous as to whether they depict a Buddha or the king, or both simultaneously,” Cooler says. “It is known that ancient kings presented themselves verbally to their people in this ambiguous way as a means of justifying their divine right to rule. These 11 images are the first examples in Myanmar of this political concept being depicted in sculpture.”

Cooler himself first encountered the sandstone statue in its original temple location during the mid-1970s, while conducting research in Myanmar. But it was in the mid-1990s that the iconic image became the focus of his personal quest.

Wheels of justice grind slowly

After the statue was stolen from Myanmar by an unknown individual, it wound up in Bangkok and was sold to an art dealer in San Francisco. In 1991, it was listed for sale by Sotheby’s, the famous auction house in New York.

Based on an anonymous tip, however, the FBI impounded the statue prior to the sale to conduct an investigation. After three years of research, authorities were unable to advance the criminal case, and it ended without prosecution. But the Unites States initiated a civil suit to determine the Buddha’s rightful owner.

It was then, Cooler recalls, that he was contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, requesting help in establishing the sculpture’s provenance.

“I recognized this was an extraordinarily important image for understanding the development of Burmese art and kingship, and that it rightfully belonged to the Burmese people,” Cooler says.

Catherine Raymond and Richard Cooler

Catherine Raymond and Richard Cooler

A ‘break’ in the case

Cooler checked his library and located several photographs of the statue, taken when it was displayed in the temple cave. The photographs showed that the sculpture had been reassembled after being broken through at the shins, probably during a 19th-century earthquake. Whoever snatched the statue left its base behind.

Not coincidentally, the statue mounted for sale at Sotheby’s was missing its feet.

Cooler requested and received permission to pursue the case on behalf of the Myanmar government and was joined in this endeavor by his former NIU graduate student, attorney Jack Daulton, a specialist in art and entertainment law. Daulton pursued the legal case, while Cooler traveled to Burma in search of the lower part of the statue.

Amazingly, he found just that. After the 1988 theft of the sculpture and other images at the temple cave in Bagan, Burmese archaeologists had moved remaining artifacts to a storehouse for safekeeping.

Soon after Cooler’s find, the art dealer who had purchased the statue and put it up for auction relinquished any ownership claim. A U.S. District Court judge ruled Myanmar was the rightful owner.

Daulton wrote at the time that he believed it was the first case in which Myanmar had pursued the return of cultural property in U.S. courts. “In fact, I believe this case represents the first instance in which a Southeast Asian nation has litigated a cultural property claim in the United States,” he wrote.

Legal expenses had been covered by Daulton and Cooler, and as a gesture of appreciation, the government of Myanmar agreed to allow NIU to exhibit the Buddha statue.

Diplomatic hurdles

Burmese Ambassador in Paris HE U Kyaw Zwar Minn

Burmese Ambassador in Paris HE U Kyaw Zwar Minn

But the story doesn’t end there.

Before his retirement, Cooler made several attempts to return the Buddha image. But the task wasn’t so easy.

Diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the United States were strained, with the American government having removed its ambassador in the wake of the controversial 1990 elections. Cooler needed to ensure the antiquity would land in the hands of the proper authorities.

“The statue wasn’t returned because relations between the U.S. and Burma were too frayed during that period, and I retired in 2001,” Cooler says.

In 2002, Catherine Raymond  succeeded Cooler as Burma Studies center director at NIU. In 2006, she initiated discussions in her native France, which maintained diplomatic relations with Myanmar, concerning alternative ways to return the image.

After years of repeated proposals to the Burmese Embassy in Paris, she contacted the new Myanmar ambassador to France in 2011, and ambassador U Kyaw Zwar Minn championed the cause. He saw to it that funds were provided for the sculpture’s return.

“Working with the ambassador and his U.S. emissary, we made arrangements to ship the statue to the Myanmar embassy in Paris and from there to the National Museum in Yangon, Myanmar,” Raymond says. “It arrived in late 2012.”

A warm reception

As it happens, Raymond and NIU’s McCord were members of an Institute for International Education (IIE) delegation representing 10 U.S. universities that visited Myanmar in February. The delegation sought to learn more about the state of higher education in the country and to explore potential partnerships.

During the visit, Raymond received a “Certificate of Honour” from the Myanmar Ministry of Culture during a ceremony at the National Museum, covered by various news media. Raymond was surprised to see the top of the statue and its base were reunited.

“I obviously was very familiar with the top two thirds of the statue, but I suddenly became worried over whether the two pieces would be a perfect match,” she said. “The statue wasn’t reassembled, but we could see the top and base did fit together. I was touched by the ceremony, because it was evident how much the Burmese really care about this antiquity.”

Raymond is working with the National Museum on an exhibit that will tell the story of the statue’s journey and reunion.

U Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to President Thein Sein, joins NIU’s Chris McCord, Catherine Raymond and Amy Levin

U Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to President Thein Sein, joins NIU’s Chris McCord, Catherine Raymond and Amy Levin

“The return of the statue, coinciding with the start of our visit and a thawing of U.S.-Myanmar relations, couldn’t have come at a better moment,” McCord adds.

“Both the U.S. and Myanmar governments were absolutely thrilled, and Catherine Raymond was justly singled out for recognition and thanks at every place the U.S. delegation visited subsequently. Her return of the statue significantly raised the prestige and visibility of NIU in a country that is just beginning to engage with the United States.”

The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed in international education circles, either.

“Professors who love their field have a way of prevailing,” IIE President and CEO Allan E. Goodman wrote in a recent column published in University World News Global Edition. 

Dr. Raymond’s university has the only center for Burma studies in the U.S., and it has been operating since the 1980s,” Goodman said. “She is one of a handful of scholars who studied Burma during all the difficult years and is now part of opening its educational space. Sometimes, it seems, a career in international education involves as much diplomacy as it does research.”