FBI returns 22 looted artifacts to Japan after discovery in Massachusetts attic

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The FBI has returned 22 centuries-old artifacts to Okinawa, Japan, after a family discovered them in their late father’s attic in Massachusetts.

Agents with the FBI’s Boston division on Friday announced that the return of the looted items followed a lengthy investigation that began when they received a call from a family who came across the items while sorting through their dead dad’s belongings.

The father was a second world war veteran but had not served in the Pacific theater, according to the FBI.

Art crime coordinator Geoffrey Kelly of the FBI’s Boston field office said the man’s children nonetheless then “came across some [of] what appeared to be very valuable Asian art”.

“There were some scrolls, there were some pottery pieces, there was an ancient map. They looked old and valuable. And because of this, they did a little research and they determined that at least the scrolls had been entered about 20 years ago in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File,” Kelly said.

A hand drawn map of Okinawa dating back to the 19th century, one of 22 historic artifacts that were looted following the Battle of Okinawa and recovered in a Massachusetts home. Photograph: AP

The items included six painted scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries, three of which were one piece and appear to have been divided into three pieces. Other items included a hand-drawn map of Okinawa dating back to the 19th century as well as various pieces of pottery and ceramics.

A typewritten letter which was also found among the artifacts helped confirm that the items were looted during the last days of the second world war, the FBI said.

“When taken together, they really represent a substantial piece of … history” in Okinawa, which was the site of a consequential battle during the second world war, Kelly said.

Tapestry is one of 22 historic artifacts that were looted following the Battle of Okinawa in world war two. Photograph: AP

After the artifacts’ discovery, the FBI transported the items to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington DC. The scrolls were unfurled for the first time at the museum, revealing “portraits of Okinawan royalty in vivid reds, golds and blue accents,” the FBI said.

“It’s an exciting moment when you watch the scroll unfurl in front of you,” Kelly said. He added: “You witness history, and you witness something that hasn’t been seen by many people in a very long time.

“A nation’s cultural identity is really summed up in the artifacts and the history. This is what makes a culture. And without it, you’re taking away their history. And the surest way to eliminate a culture is to eliminate their past.

“And so, it’s really important for us as stewards of artifacts and cultural patrimony to make every effort that we can to see that these go back to the civilizations and the cultures in the countries where they belong.”

The members of the family who discovered the artifacts returned to Okinawa asked that their identities be kept private, said the FBI, which honored the request.

According to the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, there are still several Okinawan artifacts that are missing, including various portraits of Okinawan royalty.



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