Dutch art collector Oscar van Overeem must return a Buddha image to two Chinese villages, the court in the Chinese city of Sanming decided on Friday.

The statue features the mummified body of Zhanggong Zushi, a monk who lived a thousand years ago.

Van Overeem bought the Buddha statue in 1995 for the equivalent of 40,000 euros from a Dutch trader.

He loaned the statue to an exhibition in Budapest in 2014, after which the object was widely admitted.

The residents of Yangchun and Dongpu also saw the image and said that a temple of the villages had been stolen in 1995.

In 2018, the two village committees of Yangchun and Dongpu asked the court in the Netherlands to assign them the statue.

The court then declared the village committees inadmissible because they were not legal persons.

Van Overeem has always denied that the statue comes from the villages.

He also says that he sold the statue to a Chinese businessman and does not know where it is now.

According to Friday's verdict, the art collector has thirty days to return the image to the villages, according to a news report from the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

It is not known what the sanction is if Van Overeem does not comply with it.