Photo/IllutrationTwo of three Buddhist statues stolen from here were taken to Australia. Residents bought them back and returned them to the temple in Asagiri, Kumamoto Prefecture. (Tomoya Ishikawa)

An antiques dealer took a daytime trip to a temple in the mountains to seek a spiritual solution to his problems in life.

He found the answer in the form of a centuries-old Buddhist statue, which he promptly pilfered from the “zushi” sacred cabinet in the main hall.

“It was heavy,” the thief said of the Senju Kannon statue, a designated cultural property of Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture. “It was as heavy as a child.”

Although that break-in and theft occurred in May 2008, the thief said the market for stolen Buddhist statues and other cultural assets has become larger and more lucrative.

The hot items are traded at high prices, making them much more difficult and expensive to retrieve by the original owners, who already face legal time limits on regaining their goods.

“There is an unlimited demand for Buddhist statues--the most popular type of antique,” the man in his 60s from Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, told The Asahi Shimbun in late May. “I just went there (to unmanned temples) and stole them. I have pilfered at least 30 statues.”

The 1-meter-tall Senju Kannon statue with a fleshy face was created in the Muromachi Period (1338-1573) under the traditional “yosegi zukuri” method.

He said he stole the statue to emerge from his debts. An organizer of an auction in the prefecture had repeatedly asked him to provide items that would “catch the eye of buyers.”

He recalled that a chief priest had asked him to take care of a Buddhist statue from a temple that was expected to be abandoned because of the shrinking population, so he thought that such unmanned temples would make for easy targets.

The auction organizer asked the thief if the Senju Kannon statue was stolen property. The thief said he had received “it from an abandoned temple,” and no more questions were asked.

“I desperately wanted him to put the statue on the block,” the auction organizer told The Asahi Shimbun. “I did not feel anything was wrong because there are many abandoned temples around here.”

The Senju Kannon statue was sold to an art dealer in Kyoto Prefecture for 500,000 yen ($4,487). But police investigating the theft located the buyer, and the statue was returned to the temple.

The thief said the Senju Kannon statue could have fetched 10 times the auction price if it had been resold to an individual.

In 2009, he was convicted of stealing five Buddhist statues from temples in Shizuoka Prefecture.

He died in early July just months after admitting to a series of cultural asset thefts in his interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

According to the director of an organization of antiques dealers in the Kansai region, items sold at auctions organized by major dealers require a huge amount of identification papers and a large deposit.

If the sold items are found to have been stolen, they are returned to the original owners no matter how many years have passed since their pilferage. That is because leading dealers put top priority on earning the trust of customers.

But that is not the case with smaller agents.

“We don’t really refuse to buy stolen goods if they can lead to profits,” said an art dealer in Osaka who participates in auctions mainly for smaller agents.

Such auctions are held regularly at an Osaka hotel also known for its wedding receptions, the dealer said.

Although the names of the articles and buyers are recorded, details of the trades are not monitored. For example, one record simply states “a plate at 1 million yen.”

In principle, the deals are sealed through bank transfers. But stolen goods are usually purchased in cash to avoid a paper trail, the dealer said.

Kazuki Ueda, a cultural property protection officer with the Nara prefectural police, has investigated asset-theft cases in Nara Prefecture and provides guidance on how to protect the properties.

“Buddhist images can be sold at high prices so they are often stolen,” Ueda said. “In addition, people unfamiliar with statues tend to buy them at asking prices set by antiques dealers, resulting in a large profit margin. Undesignated assets are often targeted because they are difficult to trace.”

OWNERSHIP RIGHTS LOST IN 2 YEARS

Tadahisa Sakai, 72, the 18th head of the Sakai clan, the former lord of the Shonai domain in what is now Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, had more than 10 cultural assets, including swords and a samurai warrior’s helmet, stolen from the family’s warehouse in 1986.

The most valuable item taken was a sword known as Bishu Osafune Ju Motoshige, which was designated by the central government as an important cultural property.

Although a sword collector in Osaka Prefecture located the Motoshige blade, Sakai also heard that sword lovers were offering nearly 100 million yen to buy it.

Sakai decided he could not afford to pay such a high price and gave up on retrieving the stolen property.

He had previously bought back another stolen sword for 20 million yen. The blade, called Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, was originally owned by the first domain lord and is also designated an important cultural property.

“Why do I have to pay money even though they were stolen from me?” Sakai said. “It still sounds unconvincing for me.”

Under the Civil Law, asset owners lose their ownership rights two years after the properties are stolen.

The new owners must return the stolen goods—free of charge—during the two-year period, even if they did not know the items were obtained illegally.

The man who stole Sakai’s treasures was arrested and convicted in 1989. But the whereabouts of the pilfered goods were unknown.

After serving his prison sentence, he told Sakai in 1998 that a wealthy individual in Tokyo owned the Yoshimitsu sword and proposed to mediate a buyback sale.

More than 10 years had passed since Sakai’s assets were stolen, so he had to enter negotiations to gain back the sword.

“Articles that have turned out to be stolen should be exempted from the two-year limit, allowing their owners to get the properties returned at any time for free,” Sakai said. “Unless such measures are taken, there will be no end to cultural asset thefts.”

It can be even more difficult getting stolen properties returned if they are taken overseas.

Two Buddhist statues designated by the Kumamoto prefectural government as cultural assets were stolen from an unmanned temple in 2004 from Asagiri town and sold in Australia.

They were found two-and-a-half years later.

The statues had been managed by 60 local households. Asagiri residents held talks over six months with the statues’ new owner in Australia via the town government.

To buy back the statues, the residents raised 2.5 million yen by selling thinned wood from a co-owned forest.

Masaichi Goto, 69, head of a residents group, said the return of the statues did not end the concerns.

“There are many worries about them, such as the possibility that they will be stolen again,” he said.

(This article was written by Ryo Aibara, Kohei Tomida and Tomoya Ishikawa.)