Family Finds Stolen Japanese Artifacts While Cleaning Out an Attic in Massachusetts

The FBI has returned the rare objects to Okinawa, where they were looted during World War II

Okinawa scroll
Historic scrolls looted in World War II were unfurled for the first time in decades by experts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. FBI

A trove of 22 looted Japanese artifacts, found in a family’s Massachusetts attic, has returned home after nearly 80 years.

According to an FBI statement, the family discovered the artifacts while sorting through items in their late father’s house. The father was a World War II veteran but did not serve in the Pacific Theater.

When the family researched the artifacts, they learned that several were in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File. The items were from the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled Okinawa between the 15th and 19th centuries, and they had been taken during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. After the discovery, the family notified the FBI, which began investigating the case.

“Very few items survived from that kingdom,” Travis Seifman, a historian with the Art Research Center at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, tells the New York Times’ Emily Schmall. “Recouping heritage, recouping cultural treasures, knowledge of their own history is a really big deal for a lot of people in Okinawa.”

Okinawa Repatriation Bowl
The FBI has returned this 450-year old bowl, as well as 21 other looted artifacts, to Japan. FBI

The trove included six painted scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries, a hand-drawn map of Okinawa from the 19th century and other pottery and ceramic items. The FBI sent the artifacts to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C., where experts unrolled the scrolls, revealing brightly colored portraits of Okinawan royalty, and verified their authenticity.

“It’s an exciting moment when you watch the scroll unfurl in front of you,” says Geoffrey Kelly, the art crime coordinator for FBI Boston, in the statement. “You witness history, and you witness something that hasn’t been seen by many people in a very long time.”

​​The Battle of Okinawa was among the bloodiest in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Fought in the spring of 1945, the battle killed roughly 12,000 Americans, 110,000 Japanese soldiers and conscripts and 100,000 Japanese civilians.

Alongside the artifacts, the family discovered a typed letter from a soldier stationed in the Pacific that explained what happened to the items in the battle’s aftermath. According to the Times, the letter’s author described a failed attempt to sell the items to a museum in the United States after smuggling them out of Japan.

hand-drawn map of Okinawa
A Massachusetts family found a hand-drawn map of Okinawa among the items. FBI

“A nation’s cultural identity is really summed up in the artifacts and the history,” adds Kelly. “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.”

The “official handover” took place last week, and the artifacts are now safely home in Okinawa. According to the statement, the FBI’s Art Crime Program has recovered more than 20,000 items with an estimated value of over $900 million.

Even so, officials note that several Okinawan artifacts are still missing, and tips from the public are often a key step in the recovery process.

“This case highlights the important role the public plays in recognizing and reporting possible stolen art,” says Jodi Cohen, the special agent in charge of FBI Boston, in the statement. “We’d like to thank the family from Massachusetts who did the right thing in reaching out to us and relinquishing these treasures so we could return them to the people of Japan.”

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