FBI Boston Special Agent Describes Return of Okinawan Artifacts

FBI Boston Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, a member of the FBI Art Crime Team, describes how the FBI helped in the recovery and return of 22 artifacts believed to have been taken from Okinawa at the end of World War II. These artifacts had been missing for almost 80 years.

Video Transcript

It was a complaint call that came in to the Boston field office. I’m one of the members of the FBI's Art Crime Team, and I'm the art theft coordinator for the Boston Field office. So the complaint came to me.

And it was a family that was going through their deceased father’s personal effects. And they came across what appeared to be very valuable Asian art. There were some scrolls. There was some pottery. There was an ancient map. It looked old and it looked 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. And once they realized that they were stolen, they reached out to the FBI and it came to me.

So what I needed to do with this is conduct a logical investigation. It's the same as you do with any type of investigation. Took the information that we had. We had these beautiful old artifacts. We had a very almost like a Rosetta Stone. We had this unseen and typewritten   that was enclosed with the artifacts, which really kind of laid out in detail how they were collected.

And it was readily apparent from reading this letter that these items were collected in Okinawa in the last days of World War Two and therefore most likely had been looted.

And of course, one of the basic things to do in this is just do a side-by-side comparison. And so we had images of the looted antiquities that were looted sometime in the mid 1940s—not great quality photos, black and white, but still clear enough that you could compare them side by side with the antiquities in Massachusetts, and form a pretty good conclusion that they were a match.

There were 22 artifacts in total that were recovered up in Massachusetts. And they really range from some very old, large, fragile scrolls, a hand-drawn map of Okinawa that dates back to the 19th century, some pottery, some metalwork, really a range of objects. And when taken together, it really represents a substantial piece of Okinawan history

There's something very climactic about unfurling a scroll. I didn't do it when I recovered it initially because I certainly didn't want to damage it. That's one of you don't want to be the guy that goes and damages it further. They're very fragile and they're very old.

So really, the first time that they were unfurled that we could see them was at the Smithsonian with the experts. And it really is it's an exciting moment when you when you watch the scroll unfurl in front of you and you just witness history and you witness something that hasn't been seen by many people in a very long time.

These artifacts were very culturally significant. Of course, as with any cultural patrimony, they're important pieces of a culture’s identity. These were especially important because they were kings, Okinawan kings dating back to the 19th century. And it doesn't take long to look at this before you realize that this is really something that that needs to be repatriated.

Whenever we're conducting an investigation, we never go it alone. We immediately engaged with our partners at DOD 38G to figure out a way that we can get the logistics in place to transfer these artifacts back to Okinawa where they belong.

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.

So I think one of the biggest takeaways from this entire investigation is the fact that in this case the family did the right thing. They did everything right. They had some questioned artifacts that they thought might not belong here in this country. They checked the National Stolen Art File. And when they realized that it may, in fact, have been looted, cultural property, they did what they should have done, which is call the FBI.

We’re not looking to put people in jail because they happened to inherit some objects that have some questionable or dubious provenance. We’re here to help make sure at the end of the day it goes back to its rightful owner.

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