Following a report from the Dutch Council of Culture, several major museums have pledged to repatriate looted artworks in an attempt to rectify historical wrongs. An estimated 100,000 artefacts stolen by colonialists could be subject to restitution.
“Injustices that took place in the colonial past cannot be undone,” accepted the Dutch council. “But a contribution can be made to repairing that injustice by taking responsibility when dealing with colonial objects.”
The government advisory body’s report, published on 6 October, ruled that artworks must be unconditionally returned if requested by their country of origin. Author of the report and human rights lawyer Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You declared: “if it doesn’t belong to you then you must return it.”
Dutch ships first set sail for Asia in the late sixteenth century, founding the Dutch East India Company shortly afterwards. The declaration of Suriname’s independence in 1975 signalled the final stages of official decolonisation, yet thousands of artworks taken during this period have since remained in Dutch museums .
Directors of the Rijksmuseum and Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam quickly announced their support for the proposal. One recommendation made to culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven involves the creation of a legal structure which would oversee the repatriation of objects identified with “reasonable certainty” as looted.
Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, confirmed “we think it is good advice to set up an independent committee and a centre of expertise to deal with any claims from states.”
“For the Rijksmuseum, this means that we will also continue to research the provenance of our collections from the former colonies and intensify international cooperation… The independent committee will ultimately deal with restitution,” added Dibbits.