The return of looted Dutch colonial art takes years | Policy

The intended Dutch return of looted colonial art is proceeding at a slow pace. More than a year and a half after the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) announced that an independent evaluation committee would be established, yet to be formed. “It hurts that it takes so long.”

Bronze waist necklace from the 18th century from the Kingdom of Benin. © Collection of the National Museum of World Cultures

This week it became apparent that a museum in London is returning 72 artifacts to Nigeria because they were apparently looted from the former Kingdom of Benin. The Netherlands is slowing down. The concerns already expressed by experts seem to have been realized: it will take a long time before the looted Dutch colonial art is returned. Also because research is difficult and there appears to be no deadline for research for the commission: ‘The commission has been set up for an indefinite period,’ says an OCW spokesperson. “We think the commission will start sometime this fall.”

In October 2020, the Culture Council already recommended that the Netherlands return the colonial heritage to the countries from which the artifacts come. The requirement is that it must be probable that this property was taken involuntarily. The advice covers hundreds of thousands of things and also touches on flags, ceremonial weapons, human remains, and features that play a role in religions.

This mainly concerns things that were conquered when Holland, Indonesia and Suriname were colonies. Artifacts captured during the colonial wars are also included.

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“Sad it’s taking so long”

Last January, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science sent a letter to the House of Representatives acknowledging that the indigenous peoples of colonial areas had been wronged by the removal of art pieces.

“It hurts that the commission has taken so long to set up,” says Jos van Beurden, an independent expert on colonial heritage repatriation. Opponents of the Restitution use the argument that Dutch museums would then be empty.

Van Beurden: That’s really nonsense. What happens to the beings of Benin is that the title goes to Nigeria. That country will, in turn, lend a number of the pieces to the museum in Europe where they are still found. Transfer of ownership is essential.”

While London’s Horniman Museum returns 72 pieces of art, the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands has identified 114 boys’ pieces as looted art. Most of them are in the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. Talks are underway with Nigeria on this matter.

‘Need strong parties’

There are a lot of artworks looted from Indonesia in the Netherlands. The Dutch were keen on Hindu and Buddhist statues and weapons. Van Beurden says there is “not a lot of art looted” from Suriname. “Many things from Indonesia can be traced, but many are untraceable. It may take years to identify those and how they got here. It is important that there are strong parties on both the Dutch and Indonesian sides that can consult with each other. Then it will not take all this time “.

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The Bronze Rooster was looted from Benin City in 1897.
The Bronze Rooster was looted from Benin City in 1897. © National Museum Collection in W

Megan Vasquez

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