Balinese monarch is the last to hear about Indonesian demand for return of looted art

Indonesia’s demand for the return of looted heritage came as no surprise. But the list that Director General for Education and Culture, Farid Hilmar, handed to State Secretary Uslu (Culture and Media, D66) in July is causing a stir.

Last weekend it became clear that eight specific collections and objects are being claimed, including those belonging to Dutch researcher Eugène Dubois. The list includes the world-famous half-million-year-old Java skull and a collection of 40,000 fossils from the Naturalis Museum. The museum has already indicated that it wonders how that collection will be maintained in Indonesia.

The list also causes unrest on the Indonesian side. For example, the king of Klungkung only learned today that Indonesia claims ownership of the krisen (dagger) that his ancestor used during a collective suicide in 1908. “‘I don’t know anything,’ the king just told me,” Rodney Westerlaken said on the phone from Bali. Westerlaken earned his doctorate in Indonesian culture from Udayana University and has been the spokesman for the Balinese king Ida Dalem Semaraputra in Klungkung for several years now. For years, the king has wanted to see stolen heirlooms in the Netherlands, including special ritual objects, back in his palace.

Also read: Robbery back? Please, but not to Jakarta, says the king of Klungkung in Bali

When the principality was attacked by Dutch troops in 1908, the family collectively committed suicide to avoid falling into enemy hands. puputan. The troops looted the palace. Part of the inheritance was brought to the Netherlands.

“Note that Indonesia did not yet exist as a nation at the time. The Netherlands attacked the Balinese principality of Klungkung,” says Westerlaken. “The king now fears that the state of Indonesia will keep the objects in Jakarta. While he would like the objects to go back to his palace.”

Emotional stress

The crisis has an emotional charge. “A kris from the same puputan is in the National Museum in Jakarta,” says Westerlaken. In 2008, the coat of arms was on the occasion of the puputan’s memorial service at Klungkung Palace. “When a relative held the object, he went into a trance. He began to speak in the voice of the prince who had committed suicide with it during the Dutch attack. You could say we need to stay sober, but the event shows how much the object means to the people here. The king and his society do not want to just put this legacy in a shop window, as happened with the crisis in Jakarta. They want to bring back the crisis that is now on the list and use it in the rituals that are still being performed.”

Cap of the Java man, part of the Dubois collection in the Naturalis Museum in Leiden.
Photo Remko de Waal/ANP

Historian Bonnie Triyana, a member of the Indonesian Repatriation Commission (of Stolen Heritage), participated in the transfer of the list last July. “The list is a start, a start to the repatriation process. A more comprehensive list will come later. It’s not there yet,’ he says by telephone. “These eight were chosen because all these objects and collections have been on the Indonesian wish list for a long time. The skull and the Dubois collection have been mentioned many times in conversations between representatives of both countries. Since 1954.”

The Cultural Council

In 2020, the Cultural Council led by Lilian Gonçalves – Ho Kang You advised that stolen colonial heritage should be returned unconditionally. “It leaves the destination of the recovered looted art to the Indonesian state,” says Westerlaken.

Several Indonesian royal houses are now considering a claim to inheritance that was stolen during the colonial era. And in an earlier interview, Hilmar Farid stated that the things that come back will eventually come into the possession of the national government. “If private parties start claiming items, it will be total chaos, we can’t start with that.”

However, there may be several ‘stakeholders’. In addition to descendants of royal houses, there may also be communities from areas that have a tense relationship with the Indonesian government, such as West Papua and the Moluccas. Claims of ownership of objects from the Moluccas and West Papua can cause controversy. Local communities may not want their looted heritage to go to the state.


At the time, Stijn Schoonderwoerd, director of the National Museum of World Cultures, supported the council on restitution: “With this, the Netherlands takes its responsibility by acknowledging the injustice and making restitution possible,” he said in a statement. The museum also acknowledged possible friction in ownership. “Furthermore, we see in the council that only one nation-state can lay claim to This does not always provide a solution for indigenous communities with their desire to recover certain objects.”

It is not known when Indonesia will draw up the rest of the list. According to researchers, there are an estimated 300,000 objects in Dutch collections that could be colonial looted art. A committee, also chaired by Gonçalves, will investigate the provenance of alleged objects on the list last July.

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