Indonesia welcomes return of jewels, carvings as step in global restitution effort

LEIDEN, Netherlands — The Netherlands and Indonesia on Monday hailed the return of hundreds of cultural artifacts taken — sometimes by force — during colonial times as a major step forward in restitution efforts worldwide.

The items, ranging from valuable jewels to 13th-century temple carvings, were officially handed back to Indonesia at a ceremony at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden.

“We are really delighted. This is a very historic moment for both us, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. And the relationship between the two,” said Hilmar Farid, director general of cultural heritage at Indonesia’s Ministry of Culture. “But I think what we have achieved so far is also a very significant contribution to the global debate about returning of colonial objects.”

The Dutch government announced the return last week of the Indonesian treasures and looted artifacts from Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry welcomed the decision and said the Indian Ocean nation will work to preserve the items, including a richly decorated ceremonial cannon.

They are the first artifacts returned home on the advice of a Dutch committee set up in 2022 to assess requests by countries for restitution of artifacts in state museums. The committee is considering more restitution requests from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nigeria.

Indonesia got back more than the trove of glittering jewels and ancient carvings from a temple in Java, said Farid.

“We consider these objects as our missing items in our historical narrative and of course they play different roles symbolically, culturally,” he said. Their return means Indonesia can “reintegrate them into their cultural contexts. And that is, of course, of symbolic importance to us.”

Gunay Uslu, the Dutch state secretary for culture and media, called the presentation Monday “a historically, important” event that resonates beyond the Netherlands and its former colony.

“It’s also an important moment for the world because it’s about colonial objects in a colonial context. So it’s a sensitive topic,” she said.

A Berlin museum announced in January it is ready to return hundreds of human skulls from the former German colony of East Africa. In 2021, France said it was returning statues, royal thrones and sacred altars taken from the West African nation of Benin. And last year, Belgium returned a gold-capped tooth belonging to the slain Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba.


Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed from The Hague.