looted art

Amazing Looted Art returned by 5+ countries

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    In my opinion, wars are the most terrible events that can happen to a human being. Natural disasters are beyond your control (unless you do nothing to prevent global warming), but wars are caused by people.
    Not only do you destroy human lives, but also beautiful cities and possibly also art and jewelry. People, but also art, are irreplaceable and a large part of your cultural heritage and your traditional knowledge will be lost.

    My old friend Manus Brinkman, who was Secretary General of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Paris from 1998 to 2004, once explained to me that when war threatened, it was his job to ensure that the most valuable objects were removed from the museums and safely stored elsewhere and to return looted art and also looted jewelry.

    Unfortunately, that is not always the solution, because in Baghdad/Iraq, for example, about 15,000 antiquities were stolen shortly after the American invasion in 2003. The museum was completely looted. Gone is tradition, gone is history, and gone are years of work to put together a very nice collection.

    Regal gold brooch with diamonds from the Lombok treasure.
    Regal gold brooch with diamonds from the Lombok treasure.
    Regal gold earrings, from Indonesia, with filigree, ruby, and green shield of beetles.
    Regal gold earrings, from Indonesia, with filigree, ruby, and green shield of beetles.

    Looted art is timeless

    Stolen artifacts, including many old pieces of jewelry, turn up all over the world, from shady dealers, or they disappear into private collections, after which they disappear without a trace. This is what Manus Brinkman and his team are trying to prevent, which is not always successful. The museum in Baghdad was not so much looted by the Americans, but by others, who saw a good living in it.

    A few years back in World War II, Hitler took a different approach. He deliberately stole the most valuable art from the museums and brought it to Germany. Treasures of Jews were confiscated, as were valuable private collections in the conquered territories. In this way, he financed, among other things, the Second World War.

    Part of those collections could be ‘saved’ by storing them in bunkers in the dunes of the Netherlands. Because the ICOM did not exist at that time and could not do anything about it.

    Colonial looted art

    In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when colonialism was at its peak, a lot of art was illegally brought to the ‘home countries’ by colonial occupiers, such as Germany, England, France, and the Netherlands. This art has been displayed in European museums for centuries.

    Archaeologists, who excavated valuable objects in Egypt, for example, but also in Greece, also brought them to the European capitals to be displayed there.

    All of this looted art, paintings, gold, silver, and jewelry was not owned by these archaeologists, colonial states, or governments. They belonged to communities, for which they represented not only a monetary value but also their identity, their history, and their tradition.

    Local new rulers have also sold art to finance their war or their rule, such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. For example, many important artifacts from Angkor Wat were sold by the Khmer Rouge to the highest bidder.

    Return looted art to its rightful owner

    Initially, after the Second World War, a start was made with the search for the missing treasures, the missing Jewish family jewelry, and other (art) objects. And it took a lot of effort to return it to its rightful owners. Over the years, many museums had purchased pieces that they believed to have been acquired lawfully. The top pieces turned out to have been stolen and had to be returned.

    Slowly but surely requests came from Egypt, Benin, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and many other countries to return their properties. Without success at first. First, it had to be found out which pieces in a museum were eligible for this, evidence had to be collected, and research had to be done. In short, a lot of bureaucratic red tape.

    Then the Western countries had requirements with regard to the accommodation of any jewelry and art objects to be returned to the original owners. Were there museums, were they adequately secured, and could the objects be properly exhibited?

    Things are changing in Europe. Apologies are made for the colonial past, sorry is said to the enslaved, and efforts are made to return art that was wrongfully taken, including jewelry.


    Looted art back to Indonesia

    The Netherlands returns 472 art objects to Indonesia and 6 objects to Sri Lanka. These objects are now in prominent museums.

    Lombok treasure: looted art/jewelry

    Most of the artifacts that are returned to Indonesia are part of the so-called Lombok treasure. This was a large amount of silver and gold coins, precious stones, and artifacts. Unfortunately, the gold and silver were melted down much earlier and ended up in the Dutch treasury. But the gems, jewelry, and artifacts now go back.

    This Lombok treasure was captured in 1894 from the palace in Tjakranegara and the surrounding villages by the Dutch-Indies army on the Indonesian island of Lombok. This treasure was stored in treasuries and, after confiscation, was used to cover the costs of the army’s expedition.

    One of the owners was Raja Ratu Agung Agung Ngurah Gde Karangasem, who lost a total of 200 kilos of gold coins, 7199 silver coins, and more than 1000 art objects to the army. The absolute showpiece was a gold ring set with a 75-carat diamond, which is one of the largest in the world.

    Part of this treasure was already returned in 1977, but it seems that the rest will now follow. An important kris (type of stabbing weapon) with a gold blade decorated with precious stones is also returned to Indonesia.

    75-carat diamond from the Lombok treasure: looted art from Indonesia.
    75-carat diamond from the Lombok treasure: looted art from Indonesia.
    Banjarmasin diamond, a 35-carat diamond: looted art from Indonesia.
    Banjarmasin diamond, a 35-carat diamond: looted art from Indonesia.

    Banjarmasin diamond: looted art

    Another diamond that belongs to colonial looted art is the Banjarmasin diamond. This is 36 carats in size and is also in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

    Banjarmasin is located in Borneo and was for centuries a well-known port where Indian gems were traded. With the help of the Dutch East Indie Company (a large Dutch trading company in the 18th century) or under its direction, 50,000 carats of diamonds were traded annually.

    In 1835, a delegation from the East India Company was invited to the sultan’s palace. And it was seen that the king was completely covered in diamond jewelry and that his first wife put the diamonds away in empty wine bottles.

    It was not clear where he got those diamonds from. His salary, which he received from the Dutch, was not big enough for this, he complained that he could not afford his household. Eventually, the Dutch rulers confiscated his diamond collection and shipped it to the Netherlands.

    There the collection was inventoried and a 70-carat rough diamond was found, which was named Banjarmasin, after the port city on Borneo. The Ministry first tried to exhibit the diamond in a museum, but that did not work. Then a sale was considered, but nobody wanted that big diamond.

    In the long run, the diamond was given to the Israels firm for polishing. And that left a stone of 40 carats. But nobody wanted to buy the Banjarmasin diamond yet. So the stone was sent to the Rijksmuseum to be displayed there.

    The East Indie Company repeated the stunt one more time and stole the Lombok jewelry collection and brought it to the Netherlands. The Lombok collection and the Banjarmasin diamond together did get the attention they deserved in the Rijksmuseum. After the diamond exhibition in the Rijksmuseum, the diamond was stored somewhere and seemed to be ‘lost’, only to reappear in 2001.

    Looted art back to Sri Lanka

    Sri Lanka (ancient Ceylon) has also asked for the return of important heritage from that country. The Netherlands will now transfer 6 pieces, the most important of which is the cannon of the king of Kandy (Kandy is the city where the elephant temple is located and the temple servants wear beautiful silver jewelry at the ceremonies).

    This cannon, decorated with gold and precious stones in Ceylon, was originally made in the Netherlands and came into the hands of the king of Kandy through trade or a gift. A century later in 1765 it was captured by Dutch soldiers and transported to the Netherlands, where it ended up in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

    Canon of Kandy: looted art from Sri Lanka
    Canon of Kandy: looted art from Sri Lanka

    Also, a ceremonial sword from Sri Lanka, decorated with 138 diamonds, goes back to its original owner. That sword was also on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for centuries.

    The Netherlands is not the only European country that returns so-called looted art. England, Germany, and France have also returned looted art, such as the objects that were taken from countries ‘without permission’, such as bronze statues to Benin and statues from Nigeria.

    A display with part of the Lombok treasure
    A display with part of the Lombok treasure

    Looted art back to Cambodia

    A special collection of ancient jewelry was recently returned from England to Cambodia. This collection came from a British collector Douglas Latchford, who was charged in the USA in 2020 for trading in stolen objects. He had even forged documents to obscure the origin.

    That collection consisted of 77 pieces of jewelry, such as necklaces, rings, amulets, and crowns, made of gold and silver and decorated with precious stones. They were made between the 9th and 15th centuries in Angkor Wat, which was a very powerful kingdom at the time.

    According to the Cambodian Ministry of Art, more objects would have been stolen from Angkor Wat, including by the French, during the time that Cambodia was a colony of France. And during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (communists), who traded artifacts and jewelry to finance the civil war.

    Still, a long way to go

    In 2020, the Dutch cabinet was already advised to return colonial looted art unconditionally, if the country of origin requests it. According to the committee, “historical injustices from the colonial past cannot be undone, but a contribution can be made to redressing injustices by taking responsibility for that past when dealing with colonial objects”.

    Many Dutch and European museums are now sifting through their collections to see if there is colonial looted art among them. And that is no sinecure. There is a Dutch museum that owns 450,000 objects, of which “part of the provenance is not neat”. And that needs to be looked into and rectified.

    And there is a whole list of looted art that has yet to be returned. Of course, not all colonial art is looted art. Objects have also been purchased ‘honestly’. But that all needs to be sorted out. Hopefully, that operation won’t take too long.

    Would you like to know more about gemstones and their stories? FlorenceJewelshop has published a free PDF, which you can download with this form.

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