Earlier this month, a thief stole a $1.5 million bronze Buddha statue from the backyard of a Los Angeles art gallery. The piece dates to Japan’s Edo Period (between 1603 and 1868) and likely served as the centerpiece of a temple, according to the gallery.
The burglar appears to have targeted the statue specifically, as none of the other 200 artifacts that surrounded the Buddha in the outdoor space are missing. Officials from the Barakat Gallery are struggling to understand the crime’s motive.
“We’ve been trying to put the pieces together,” Paul Henderson, the gallery director, tells Harriet Ryan of the Los Angeles Times.
Security footage shows that in the early hours of September 18, a man pulled up outside the gallery in a rented van, his face hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt. He broke into the gate leading to the yard that housed the Buddha and returned to the vehicle to retrieve a dolly.
The statue was never displayed inside the gallery or on its website, so the thief (or someone connected to the heist) must have visited the site before, writes the L.A. Times. The thief could have made off with a number of artifacts that were easier to move: At four feet tall, the Buddha weighs roughly 250 pounds.
“It’s shocking to us that he was able to maneuver this thing, but he was,” Henderson tells the Art Newspaper’s Wallace Ludel. “It took about 25 minutes in total, and then he drove right off.”
Fayez Barakat, the gallery owner, comes from a family of art collectors and has amassed a collection of more than 40,000 pieces valued at over $1.5 billion, as the magazine Arabian Business’ Beatrice Thomas reported in 2014. During the 20th century, he counted among his clients Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol.
Though his collection is vast, Barakat tells Vivian Chow and Jacqueline Sarkissian of the television station KTLA that he feels a personal connection to the stolen Buddha, which he acquired more than 55 years ago.
“I prize it so much,” says Barakat. “I had it in the backyard of my home, and when I moved into this gallery, I put it in the backyard of the gallery for everybody to admire and enjoy.”
Per the Art Newspaper, an inscription on the statue indicates that it was created by an artist named Tadazou Iinuma for a religious official named Ryozen. This text also suggests that at one point, the artwork sat in the Yudo-no-San Temple, a holy site on Japan’s Mount Yudono.
During the Edo Period, Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, a military government. Historians consider it a time of internal peace and economic prosperity, although these came at the price of social mobility, as social hierarchies were extremely rigid. Buddhism flourished during this era, though the religion had already existed in Japan for more than a millennium.
Barakat tells KTLA that he hopes the thief recognizes the historical value of this Buddha and doesn’t attempt to melt it down or alter it. However, he’d likely have trouble making money from it otherwise.
“Because it’s an ancient artifact, there’s nowhere where you can sell this piece,” Henderson tells KTLA. “You can’t go on the market. You can’t take it to a pawn shop and sell it for a few thousand dollars, it’s just not possible.” He adds, “We’re all very curious and really puzzled, to be honest.”