The Netherlands is handing back hundreds of valuable artefacts it removed from Indonesia and Sri Lanka during the colonial period, including the cache of precious stones, gold and silver jewellery looted by Dutch troops from a Balinese royal palace, known as the “Lombok treasure”.
The 484 objects are the first the Netherlands is restituting to its former Asian colonies after a 2020 report by an advisory committee urged the government to “unconditionally” return looted cultural artefacts if requested by their countries of origin.
“This is a historic moment,” said Gunay Uslu, the Dutch state secretary for culture and media. “It’s the first time we’re following recommendations of the committee to give back objects that should never have been brought to the Netherlands.”
Objects including four stone statues from the former Javanese Hindu kingdom of Singhasari, a keris dagger from the Klungkung kingdom and 132 objects of modern art from Bali, known as the Pita Maha collection, will be formally restored to the Indonesian government at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden on 10 July.
The restituted objects do not include the famous human remains of the “Java man”, even though the Indonesian government requested their return in 2022.
The remains, including a skull, were the oldest hominid fossil ever found when the Dutch palaeoanthropologist Eugène Dubois excavated them from Indonesia in 1891 and 1892. Now on display at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, they are still considered a landmark discovery in the charting of human evolution.
Indonesia argues that Dubois took the fossils from Indonesia in a context of colonial domination, and historians have found that the Dutch anthropologist used forced labourers for his dig, some of whom died while working for him.
But the Dutch museum has rejected restitution bids in the past, claiming that Java man would not have been discovered were it not for Dubois’s initiative and that objects from prehistory did not count as national patrimony.
A spokesperson for the Dutch government told the Guardian no decision on the return of the Java man remains had been made: “Nothing has been declined, but some things take longer than others.”
The six objects to be returned to Sri Lanka are a richly decorated, large-caliber bronze-cast gun known as the cannon of Kandy, which is currently on display at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, as well as gold and silver ceremonial swords, a Singhalese knife and two guns.
It comes in the wake of a step-changing 2017 speech by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that declared the return of African objects a top priority. France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have started to investigate collections in ethnological museums and transferred numerous objects to their country of origin.
The UK government, which holds a large number of disputed objects in the British Museum, has been the most notable to refrain from taking similar steps.
Finding the right procedure to hand back looted artefacts has been a risky undertaking, however. Germany’s return of 21 Benin bronzes to Nigeria last December caused a considerable backlash when it became known that the outgoing government in Abuja had transferred their ownership to the royal palace, rather than display them in a new museum for west African art that Germany was co-funding.
While the Dutch government said the objects were being returned to Indonesia unconditionally, the government in Jakarta has said they would eventually go on display at the National Museum of Indonesia.
“It’s an important step, but just a first step,” art law specialist Gert-Jan van den Bergh, of law firm Bergh Stoop & Sanders, told the Guardian. “We have 300,000 colonial objects that are the property of the central state in the Netherlands alone. Numerous issues come up that don’t in the context of Nazi-looted art. For instance, the context of the state demanding the return of these goods and communities [also] wanting it back.”
Van den Bergh said the Dutch restitution move would increase pressure on Britain to explain its intransigence. “The UK still has a lot to do when it comes to the restitution of colonial art,” he said. “Deaccessioning laws in the UK basically make anything that is suggested a toothless tiger. I’m convinced the UK doesn’t want to move ahead because it will have so many consequences, also regarding the Parthenon marbles.”