An ancient bust of Buddha worth millions of dollars was mysteriously removed from a Sotheby's New York auction on Wednesday after it was discovered to be similar to a bust stolen from the Longmen Grottoes in Central China's Henan Province about 100 years ago.
The bust was expected to be part of an auction titled the "Junkunc: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture" but it appears to have been removed as item 'five' in the Sotheby's catalogue for the auction. The bust appears on the website of the Chinese art auction website yidulive.com promoting the Sotheby's auction.
The Sotheby's website shows 17 items from the Junkunc family collection of ancient sculptures but the list jumps from item four to item six.
The remaining items in the auction sold for more than $7.5 million.
The 70-centimeter tall bust was described as being from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and was expected to sell for between $2 to 3 million and was the priciest item on auction.
Li Suisen, deputy director of the Longmen Grottoes Management Committee told the Global Times on Sunday, his committee is holding meetings to deal with the case.
Sotheby's and the Junkunc family decided to withdraw the item from auction after they reviewed photographs taken by a Japanese historian who visited the grottoes in the 1920s and 1930s, according to an email from Sotheby's sent to the Dahe Newspaper of Henan.
Antiquities expert Yang Xin noticed the Tang-style sculpture in August, reported Beijing Youth Daily. Yang later found an old photo of the Buddhist sculpture taken in 1920 by Sekino Tadashi, a Japanese scholar.
A more recent photo of a Buddha statue in the Longmen grotto also clearly resembles Sekino's 90-year-old photo except the Buddha's head is missing.
A World Heritage site since 2000, Longmen Grottoes has more than 97,000 sculptures, inscriptions and pagodas.
Although the item resembles the photographs, experts need to examine the historical object to ensure it belongs to the Longmen Grottoes.
Longmen sculptures were seriously damaged between 1918 and 1935, Wang Zhenguo from the Institute of Longmen Grottoes told the Global Times on Sunday.
Warlords, domestic and foreign antique dealers chopped off the heads of Buddha statues at Longmen and sold them to buyers in Japan, the US and around the world, Wang said.
Recovering China's looted and pillage ancient treasures from overseas remains a difficult task, said Liu Zheng, member of China Cultural Relics Academy told the Global Times on Sunday.
"Private collectors are less likely to cooperate than governments and museums," said Liu. Agreements on repatriating historic treasures signed with governments and public museums have no sway over private collectors of stolen antiques, Liu said.