Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 October 2020

Dutch ready to give back seized colonial art with independent research centre to assess roots

The Netherlands government aims to right a 'historical wrong'

The spear rack of JC Baud, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, circa 1834, is displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands on October 10, 2020. Reuters 
The spear rack of JC Baud, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, circa 1834, is displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands on October 10, 2020. Reuters 

A cannon that once saluted a Sinhalese king and a diamond looted from an Indonesian sultan are among thousands of objects seized during the colonial era whose rightful owners Dutch authorities are intent on tracking down.

But establishing who those owners are can be complicated, the national Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam argues.

It says at least 4,000 objects in its collections have clear ties to the country's colonial empire, which spanned about 300 years from the mid-17th century and whose main centres of power were in South-east Asia and the Caribbean.

A 1765 cannon that belonged to the King of Kandy (Sri Lanka) is displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands October 10, 2020. Picture taken October 10, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
A 1765 cannon that belonged to the King of Kandy (Sri Lanka) is displayed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands on October 10, 2020. Reuters

The Rijksmuseum's Head of History, Valika Smeulders, welcomed plans by the government to right what an independent commission this month called the "historical wrong" of continuing to keep valued objects taken by force during that era.

"The museum is really bringing in new knowledge, new voices, new expertise, new ways of dealing with the past and looking at these objects ... We're trying to bring down the walls of the museum," she said.

Exterior view of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands October 10, 2020. Picture taken October 10, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
Exterior view of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Reuters

The Dutch plan to set up an independent research centre as a database for colonial-era art, including where it came from and how it was obtained, and assemble panels to handle restitution requests.

And that, says Smeulders, is where difficulties may arise.

The 36-carat diamond, for instance, was looted in 1875 by Dutch troops from of the Sultanate of Banjarmasin, now part of Indonesia on the island of Borneo.

Governments in both countries have changed many times since then.

"In this case, would you return it to the country? Or would you return it to the descendants of the Sultan," she said. "And who would you do the talking with?"

The blue and gold Canon of Kandy, meanwhile, was seized in 1765 by soldiers of the Dutch East Company and displayed in the Prince of Orange's cabinet of rareties.

It will go back to Sri Lanka next year, but initially just as part of a seminar with historians and art experts who will debate its provenance, along with dozens of other objects.

The Dutch moves to return seized art are running in parallel with similar initiatives in France and Germany, and broadly follow the 1998 Washington Principles that began the process of returning art looted by the Nazis during the Second World War to Jewish heirs.

Updated: October 13, 2020 07:05 PM

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