Have you ever looted art in the attic? ‘You don’t make friends when you come to do ancestry research’

A silver bowl from Bali, carvings from Java or a crisis with snakes on the blade. These are just a few items that can turn up in an heirloom, at an aunt with Indonesian roots or on a grandparent’s fireplace. But the current debate over looted art, with Indonesia recently recovering eight objects, raises questions about this sort of thing. Because how did those trinkets end up in the Netherlands?

“People gathered on a large scale in the Dutch East Indies,” says assistant professor of history Caroline Drieënhuizen of the Open University. She earned her doctorate on the colonial collections of several wealthy Dutch families. You see a passion for collecting, especially after 1870, she explains. “Then the Suez Canal opens, a large number of Dutch go to India, and there is a great interest in other peoples and cultures and archaeology.” People collect a mix of objects. “It ranges from batik to krisis and antiques.”

Varying reception in families’ homes

It is usually unclear whether such objects today deserve the ‘looted art’ sticker. That’s because the definition of what constitutes looted art remains vague. “We often talk about military booty, objects stolen during what we have come to call the military expeditions in Indonesia. But it is not necessary in itself. When things were donated, bought or exchanged, it took place in a colonial context, with unequal power relations. Even then, you might ask yourself: How willingly did the owner give up his property?

Drieënhuizen is still researching private collections. The reception is mixed, she says. “Some families like to cooperate. But you won’t make friends if you say you want to do ancestry research.”

The Gonçalves Committee, which investigated the provenance of colonial objects in the Netherlands, found that many colonial objects were donated or lent to museums by private individuals. For example, many works in the Rijksmuseum are on loan from the Friends of Asian Art Association. Private individuals who still own items ‘are solely responsible for how they deal with them, including any requests for return’.

Not all crises need to recede

Wim Bouwman, owner of an art shop and expert on the program Between art and kitsch dismisses the discussion of looted art as ‘hype’. Sometimes, in the case of museum objects, there is “progressive insight” that leads to the decision that objects “are more appropriate in their country of origin,” he says. But he doesn’t understand why he should worry about the past for objects that private individuals provide. “You have to see those things in the light of the standards of the time. Willem II’s Rembrandts collection has also been sold for a pittance. Well, there was a lack of money.”

Dick Kranenburg of the Tribal Art and Culture Association sees it differently. “You can’t have an association like ours and let this global movement pass you by.” According to him, no one among the Association’s 350 members owns controversial art because the members are mainly interested in objects in a lower price range. But this does not mean that questions can be asked about objects. “When there’s an ancestor statue, you still wonder who gets away with something like that and why.” Kranenburg also believes that the association will soon ban the word ‘tribe’. “It’s not quite up to date anymore.”

“It’s really not that Indonesia wants all the crises that are in the Netherlands back,” says Drieënhuizen. But there are objects that are probably in private hands that are of interest. “Colleagues discovered that 194 heads are missing from the statues of Borobudur (a Buddhist shrine in Java, ed.). Some are in museums, but many have also been lost, or may still be in private hands.”

Cultural rights of indigenous peoples

“The emphasis is often on giving back, while you should also work on provenance research and recognition of injustice by telling the right story in museums,” says Evelien Campfens, a lawyer specializing in cultural heritage and affiliated with Leiden University. Legally, it is often difficult to force private collectors to hand over stolen works of art. “According to property law, claims expire quickly. And although there are more and more rules forcing new owners to prove the correct provenance of objects, legally this often only applies until 1970.”

Campfens has therefore argued in his research that other legal norms should be looked at. “It is primarily about the cultural rights of indigenous peoples. They have the right to access and control their involuntarily lost cultural property.”

She believes that something similar will eventually happen to looted art from the colonial era as it did to art stolen by the Nazis. “Fairs and auction houses are increasingly researching this kind of art. If it turns out to be a stain, it quickly makes it unsellable. Market forces then actually take over a process that the legal system cannot complete.”

With ethnographic art, one can already see the same kind of effect ‘on a small scale’. “Some items, such as bronzes from Benin known as Benin Bronzes, will not be available for sale at some point.”

Also read:

Indonesian Looted Art Committee believes these pieces belong to Indonesian history

The Netherlands could have returned artworks to Indonesia years ago, believes the committee that demands the objects back. ‘Anyone who digs in another country does not immediately have a right to the find.’

Indonesia demands Java man and other masterpieces back from Holland

The Indonesian government wants eight works of art and natural science collections back from the Netherlands, including the world-famous skull of the Javanese man. This appears from a list shared with the Dutch ministry.

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