The Dutch government is returning 478 objects looted during colonial times to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Following multiple claims from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, the Dutch Secretary of State for Culture and Media Gunay Uslu has made the decision to repatriate objects including the “Lombok treasure” consisting of 335 objects from Lombok, a key collection of modern art from Bali, the Pita Maha collection, and the 18th century Cannon of Kandy which is made of bronze, silver and gold and inlaid with rubies and may have been used to fire ceremonial shots to welcome royal visitors.
“This is a historic moment,” Uslu said in a statement. “It’s the first time we’re following recommendations…to give back objects that should never have been brought to the Netherlands. We’re also embarking on a period of closer cooperation with Indonesia and Sri Lanka in areas like collection research, presentation and exchanges between museums.”
In 2020, a Dutch Council for Culture report produced by a committee chaired by human rights lawyer Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You recommended that the country should “unconditionally return” objects it was reasonably sure were lost involuntarily by countries under its colonial authority. It said financial compensation was also an option.
Many of the objects to be returned are in the National Museum of World Cultures. Six artefacts claimed by Sri Lanka are currently in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands’s national museum of arts and history; this is its first repatriation of colonial artefacts from the museum following provenance research that began in 2017. The Cannon of Kandy, for instance, was looted by troops from the Dutch East India Company during the 1765 siege and plunder of Kandy, and it was later gifted to William V, Prince of Orange.
Dr Valika Smeulders, head of the Rijksmuseum’s department of history, tells The Art Newspaper there has been a clear shift in perspective. “I think the way that the museum world used to look at this debate in the 20th century was very much about the concern to preserve objects for generations to come, and obviously museums in Europe have the facilities to do that,” she says.
“But what changed is our view point: these objects are to tell the stories of our countries, of our shared history of peoples. So what we see now as our mission is to have the objects in the places where they are best able to tell the stories that are important.”
She dismisses concerns that the new policy would mean European museums losing collection highlights—which until recently played a role in considering restitution claims on Nazi-looted art in the Netherlands. “I don’t really think that is going to happen, because I expect countries of provenance and museums here in Europe will have a discussion about which objects will go back and not all of them will be going back,” Smeulders says. “But what we will gain, all of us, is more knowledge about these objects, how they came into our possession, their background, what stories are we able to tell. So in the end we’ll have an enrichment of what we do instead of empty galleries.”
Controversially, the collection of objects repatriated to Indonesia will not include human remains of the “Java man”. “Nothing has been declined, but some things take longer than others.” a spokesperson for Dutch government told the Guardian.
Gert-Jan van den Bergh, of law firm Bergh Stoop & Sanders, a specialist in art law, said: "It's an important step, but just a first step. Don't forget, we have 300,000 colonial objects that are the property of the central state in the Netherlands alone. He pointed out that there should be more scrutiny of privately owned colonial objects. "Auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's should also commit never to auction colonial looted art, like they did in the context of Nazi looted art, but I haven't heard anything from that side."
A ceremonial handover of objects to the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta will take place at the Museum Volkenkunde Leiden on July 10.