The Netherlands Repatriates 343 Ceramics to Panama

The pre-Hispanic pottery pieces range from bowls to plates to burial vessels

Returned artifacts
Some of the returned artifacts Courtesy of Panama Ministry of Culture

Officials in the Netherlands have repatriated 343 pre-Hispanic pieces of pottery to Panama, according to a statement from the Central American country’s culture ministry late last month.

Panamanian leaders received the artifacts at the international airport in Panama City. Researchers will now get to work learning more about the objects’ history and significance so they can eventually go on display at the Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz.

The museum, which is named in honor of a Panamanian anthropologist, has been closed for renovations since 2012. It was slated to re-open in 2019, but another renovation project pushed the date back to 2023.

Panama officials originally tried to get the ceramics back in 2018, but those repatriation attempts were unsuccessful, according to the government. The country’s leaders—including Elizabeth Ward, Panama’s ambassador to the Netherlands—restarted their efforts in March of this year. Ward reached out to Leiden University, where the pottery pieces were being held, and said that the Dutch university officials expressed interest in returning the collection.

The repatriation is part of a broader push to “protect Panamanian cultural heritage and fight illegal trafficking,” as Sarah Morland writes for Reuters. Panamanian officials claimed that they are also expecting another repatriation of historic artifacts from Italy.

“This is the largest repatriation of archaeological pieces in the history of Central America,” Erika Mouynes, Panama’s foreign minister, says in a press statement.

Official inspecting pottery
A Panamanian official inspects one of the returned ceramics. Courtesy of Panama Ministry of Culture

The shipment from the Netherlands included bowls, plates, burial vessels and grave goods, reports Hyperallergic’s Billy Anania. Many are unadorned, but others feature hand-painted geometric designs and evidence of clay modeling.

Potters originally created the pieces sometime in the first millennium C.E. in Panama’s Gran Coclé region. Experts hypothesize that someone unearthed the ceramics around the time that Panama declared independence from Colombia in the early 1900s.

A Dutch businessman bought the ceramics from Panamanian markets during the 1960s and ’70s, Alex Geurds, an archaeologist at Leiden University, tells Hyperallergic. When the businessman retired in 2017, he donated the historic artifacts to the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. Not long after, university archaeologists determined that they should offer the pieces to Panamanian officials.

The businessman “did nothing illegal whatsoever” by purchasing the pottery, says Geurds.

“[T]he market was there in the first place because there is an active supply and demand mechanism that drives the trafficking of ‘antiquities’ to this day,” he adds. “These materials here are not highly prized items you will see at Sotheby’s, but they are the undercurrent of that market.”

The return of the Panama ceramics is just the latest in a string of repatriation efforts from institutions (including the Smithsonian) around the world. Just last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art repatriated stolen artifacts to Nepal, and the Museum of the Bible gave back a Gospel manuscript to Greece.

Earlier this year, the Rubin Museum in New York agreed to return religious artifacts to Nepal, France gave back 15 works of art looted by the Nazis to Jewish families, Germany and Austria repatriated ancestral remains to Hawaii, and Harvard University gave Chief Standing Bear’s pipe tomahawk back to the Ponca Tribe