The 20-inch gilt bronze statue of a Buddhist Bodhisattva was stolen from a Japanese temple in 2012 by South Korean thieves, who were caught trying to sell it after returning home.
The Buseoksa temple in South Korea filed a legal case in 2016 claiming ownership of the statue, which has been in the custody of the government, saying Japanese pirates had plundered it in the 14th century.
But a South Korean high court on Wednesday overturned a 2017 decision in favor of the temple and rejected its claim to the statue, saying the government, the defendant in the case, now had to return it in the proper way.
“The defendant needs to deal with the issue of returning the statue in consideration of international law, norms and conventions concerning the protection and return of cultural properties,” the court said in a statement.
It said that even if the Buseoksa temple had owned the statue in the early 1300s, there was a lack of evidence to determine that the temple had maintained its “identity and continuity” over the years.
The 20-inch gilt bronze statue was stolen from a Japanese temple in 2012. Credit: Tsushima City Board of Education
An official at the temple told reporters it would appeal to the Supreme Court and try to find more evidence to support its claim.
The case has been closely watched in both countries, traditional rivals whose relations have for decades been frayed by historic feuds.
South Korea’s foreign ministry referred media queries to the Cultural Heritage Administration. An official at the agency said it did not comment on court decisions.
Japan would take follow-up action in consultation with South Korea and the Japanese temple, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said in Tokyo.
“The Japanese government will encourage the Korean government to return the statue,” he told a briefing.
The Japanese temple, Kannonji, was not a direct party to the suit but had argued at the trial that the artifact was not acquired illegally through pirates but through legitimate trade.