It was a story that rapidly circled the globe at the end of September. A statue of Buddha, allegedly collected by the Nazis during a late 1930s expedition to Tibet, had been carved out of meteorite. Referred to as the "Iron Man," the 24 centimeter-tall figure with a swastika on its chest was thought to be 1,000 years old. The statue's previous owner, researchers wrote in their Sept. 27 report, had said that it was brought to Germany by the SS expedition led by ethnologist Ernst Schäfer.
Many experts, however, have begun to doubt that version of events. For one, many elements of the carving are not consistent with Buddha statues created a millennium ago. Furthermore, Schäfer was nothing if not precise. While many of the objects he brought back have been lost, his list of the more than 2,000 items he collected remains -- and the Iron Man does not make an appearance.
Indeed, there are growing indications that it might be nothing but a fake.
Achim Bayer of Dongguk University in Seoul has written a scathing analysis of the statue -- available in English from the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of Hamburg -- in which he points out several indications that the statue was likely produced in Europe sometime between 1910 and 1970. He writes that several of the statue's features, including its "European shoes," the trousers it is wearing and the full beard carved on its chin rather than the thin, wispy beards generally associated with deities in Tibetan and Mongolian art, testify to its more recent origin. In total, Bayer lists 13 such inconsistencies.
Just how such inconsistencies might have gone unnoticed ahead of the publication of the mid-September article in the journal Meteorics and Planetary Science which unleashed last month's media frenzy is hinted at by one of the lines in the original article abstract. "The ethnological and art historical details of the "Iron Man" sculpture, as well as the time of the sculpturing, currently remain speculative," wrote the research team headed by University of Stuttgart geologist Elmar Buchner and his team.
Indeed, as Bayer points out, Buchner was more concerned with identifying the chemical make-up of the statue. He and his team were able to ascertain that the material most likely came from the Chinga meteorite, which slammed into the border region between present-day Mongolia and Siberia some 15,000 years ago. Suggestions that the ancient Tibeten Bon culture might have carved the sculpture were mere speculation, and Buchner did not consult Tibetologists before publishing his findings, Bayer writes.
"Although this paper is addressed to a specialized academic audience," Bayer writes, "I would like to briefly address readers from outside our field and clarify that there is not any controversy among experts about the authenticity of the statue, the 'lama wearing trousers,' as I would like to call it. (So far), no acknowledged authority in the field of Tibetan or Mongolian art has publicly deemed the statue authentic and the issue has to be considered uncontroversial."
The stylistic inconsistencies, however, are not the only problem with the story of its provenance. In his article, Buchner claims that the statue's previous owner related that it had been collected in the late 1930s by an SS expedition that had traveled to Tibet as part of the Nazi effort to discover the roots of the Aryan race.
But historian Isrun Engelhardt, an expert on Schäfer's trip to Tibet, isn't buying it. "There is an extremely precise list of the purchased objects, including date, place and value," she says. Buchner's statue is not on it. The list includes over 2,000 pieces; the total purchase price for the collection is 12,119 reichsmarks and 80 pfennig. Many of the objects went missing after the war while others ended up in Munich's State Museum for Ethnology. Engelhardt says the meteorite statue is almost surely not a piece purchased privately by Schäfer.
Buchner says that he had no reason to doubt the story told to him by the statue's previous owner, adding that he was most interested in identifying the material out of which the statue was made. He also suggests that perhaps the best home for the statue would be in the meteorite section of a natural history museum. "There, the art historical aspect wouldn't be so important."