FBI Returns Stolen Artifacts Found in Attic to Japan

The FBI commended the members of a family who turned over the items, saying they "did the right thing."

A scroll that has been repatriated to Japan. Photo: Courtesy of FBI

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has returned nearly two dozen objects looted from Okinawa, Japan, during World War II. The restitution was announced by the bureau, which worked with the U.S. Defense Department and the Smithsonian Institution to investigate the looted artifacts and return them to Japan.

The FBI began the investigation in January 2023 after a Massachusetts family, which was not identified, first found some of the valuable artworks among their deceased father’s possessions in the attic of his house. Their father never served in Japan but was a World War II veteran.

An aged map with East Asian characters, depicting a central landmass surrounded by various islands and bodies of water. Red and blue lines trace certain routes or boundaries. The paper is cracked and worn, emphasizing its antiquity.

A hand-drawn map of Okinawa dates back to the 19th century. Photo: Courtesy of FBI.

The bureau did not provide information about who stole the artifacts and how they ended up in the possession of the family, but said the artifacts were found with a typed message outlining in detail how the artifacts were collected in Okinawa. Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, the art theft coordinator for the Boston field office, called it the “Rosetta Stone” for his investigation.

“There were some scrolls, there were some pottery pieces, there was an ancient map. They looked old and valuable. And because of this, [the family] 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 framed, vertical scroll showing a group of East Asian figures in traditional attire, some seated and some standing, with a ruler for scale on the left edge. The painting is vibrant but shows signs of age, with a warped frame and creased paper background.

A scroll that has been repatriated to Japan. Photo: Courtesy of FBI.

Okinawa’s Prefectural Board of Education had registered many of the 22 looted items with the National Stolen Art File in 2001. Altogether, the FBI recovered six painted scrolls dated to the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a hand-drawn map of Okinawa and various ceramics.

“When taken together, they really represent a substantial piece of Okinawan history,” Kelly said.

Image of a hand wearing a blue glove, holding a dark brown ceramic bowl decorated with gold and multicolored patterns, featuring a prominent flower motif. A ruler for scale is placed next to the bowl on a brown paper-covered surface.

A vase that has been repatriated to Japan. Photo: Courtesy of FBI.

After their recovery by the FBI, the items were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C., where they were examined and prepared for proper shipment. Colonel Scott DeJesse and soldiers with the U.S. Army’s famed Monuments Men and Women transported the artifacts to Japan.

The artifacts were handed over to Japanese officials in a ceremony on March 15. A formal repatriation ceremony will be held in Japan at a later date.

A hand in a blue glove holding a brown jug with a narrow neck and a single painted scene of a landscape with a structure and trees in gold on a black background. A ruler is placed alongside the jug for scale, on a brown paper-covered surface.

A vase that has been repatriated to Japan. Photo: Courtesy of FBI.

“I think one of the biggest takeaways from this entire investigation is the fact that in this case, the family did the right thing,” Kelly said. “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 they may have been looted cultural property, they did what they should have done, which is call the FBI. And we’re very grateful for them for all the assistance they gave us.”

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