Criminals take advantage of lax custodianship at temples, shrines

There is no end to thefts of artworks and artifacts, including Buddhist statues, that have been held by temples, shrines and other facilities as objects of worship by local residents. It is vital to strengthen efforts to protect cultural properties that convey the history of a locality.

A Buddhist statue stolen from a temple in Kyoto last year was listed on a major internet auction site earlier this month. A person who saw it reported it to the police, and later the seller, who is an antiques dealer, returned it to the temple.

The police are investigating how the statue came into the possession of the antiques dealer. It is hoped that the arrest of a suspect at an early stage will help solve the case and prevent a recurrence of such incidents.

Buddhist statues, Shinto statues and swords are artworks and artifacts that are persistently popular in the antique art market. Accordingly, there are many thefts, which are a big problem in the protection of cultural properties. The latest incident is probably the tip of the iceberg.

These cases are happening against the background of the decline of local communities. Many of the targeted temples and shrines do not have chief priests and other staff, and have become unviable due to the aging and shrinking size of the communities in which they are based.

In Wakayama Prefecture, about 300 Buddhist statues have been stolen since 2008. The number is only of those that people victimized have reported to police. Many of these statues were not cultural properties designated by the central or prefectural government and were kept in uninhabited temples or out-of-sight halls.

Custodians of cultural properties should check the value of these assets and strengthen anti-theft systems.

In addition to increasing patrols and reinforcing locks, the installation of security cameras could also be effective. Another way is to store the real item and to display a replica.

Taking a photo of a cultural property and recording its dimensions will make it possible to call attention to the item if it is stolen by disclosing this information on the internet.

Cultural properties are local assets. Inscriptions indicating the origin of the property sometimes reveal the history of the area. It is important for residents to take an interest and have an awareness of their part in protecting the properties by themselves.

The current situation in which stolen goods are easily bought and sold cannot be left as is. The market for antique art has expanded, with transactions conveniently made at home via the internet, leading to crimes aimed at selling stolen items.

Antiques dealers must thoroughly confirm the identity of persons bringing cultural properties to them and their means of acquisition.

The responsibility of online auction operators is also significant.

It is insufficient to just proclaim a ban on the sale of stolen goods. There is a need to put in place a system that will make it possible to identify sellers without fail when online auction sites are used for criminal activities, and also to further strengthen surveillance against such activities.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 20, 2022)