Netherlands returns nearly 500 artifacts looted from Asia

The Dutch government has announced the return of 478 objects, illegally acquired during the colonial era, from Indonesia and Sri Lanka. These are the first objects that the Netherlands returns to its former colonies in Asia.

“It is a historic moment. This is the first time that we follow the recommendations […] to return items that should never have been brought to the Netherlands”, said the Dutch State Secretary for Culture and Media. In 2020, a report by the Dutch Council for Culture, written by a commission chaired by human rights lawyer Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, urged the government to return ” without condition “ looted cultural objects, if their countries of origin so request.

Four stone statues from the ancient Javanese Hindu kingdom of Singhasari, a keris dagger from the kingdom of Klungkung (located in the province of Bali) and 132 modern art objects from Bali – known as the “Pita Maha collection” – were officially returned in a ceremony at the National Museum of Indonesia (Jakarta), which took place on July 10 at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. However, the collection of objects repatriated to Indonesia will not include the human remains of “Java Man”claimed by the Indonesian government in 2022. Discovered by Dutch paleontologist Eugène Dubois during excavations in 1891 and 1892, the remains are on display at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. “Nothing was refused, but some things take longer than others”said a spokesman for the Dutch government at the Guardian.

Among the items to be returned is also the “Treasure of Lombok” – a collection of around 100 precious stones and gold and silver objects, looted by the Dutch colonial army on the Indonesian island of Lombok in 1894. Part of the treasure had been returned to Indonesia in 1977.

Six pieces from the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are returning to Sri Lanka, including the Kandy Canon, the most important piece. This cannon was taken in 1765 by the Dutch East India Company, during the siege and looting of the city of Kandy, before being offered to William V, Prince of Orange. The cannon has been in the Rijksmuseum since 1800. The other five items that will be returned to Sri Lanka also come from Kandy. These are two rifles (jingals), two swords (kasthanes) and a dagger (pihiya).

“It’s an important step, but it’s only a first step”, recalls Gert-Jan Van den Bergh, specialist in art law at the law firm Bergh Stoop & Sanders. Indeed, the 478 objects are only a small fraction of colonial objects that the Netherlands possess. “We have 300,000 colonial objects that are the property of the central state in the Netherlands alone”says the lawyer.

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