Massachusetts family helps return looted artifacts found in later father's attic to Japan


A Massachusetts family called the FBI for help in returning the nearly two dozen looted Japanese artifacts they discovered while sorting through belongings in their late father’s attic after his death in 2023.

Key points:

  • In a press release on Friday, the FBI announced that 22 artifacts from the Battle of Okinawa were recovered from a home of a Massachusetts family and have been returned to Japan. The FBI began its investigation into the case in January 2023.

  • Jodi Cohen, special agent in charge of FBI Boston, noted in the press release how the case highlighted the public’s important role in “recognizing and reporting possible stolen art.” Cohen added, “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.”

  • The family wished to remain anonymous.

The details:

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  • The family researched some of the artifacts through FBI's National Stolen Art File after realizing that they all looked old. They confirmed that the scrolls among the discovered artifacts were logged in the database about 20 years ago, Special Agent Geoffrey J. Kelly, the art crime coordinator for FBI Boston and a member of the FBI Art Crime Team, said.

  • The artifacts consisted of six painted scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries, a hand-drawn map from the 19th century depicting Okinawa at the time and a few pieces of pottery and ceramics. The FBI also noted the discovery of a letter among the stolen artifacts, confirming that they were looted in the last days of WWII.

  • The looted artifacts belonged to a treasure trove from the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled the islands from 1429 to 1879. Japanese officials registered those stolen treasures in the National Stolen Art File in 2001.

  • The Battle of Okinawa, also known as Operation Iceberg, was one of the major battles in the Pacific during WWII. It took place on the islands of Okinawa, Japan, and resulted in the deaths of 49,000 Americans, as well as an estimated 150,000 civilians and 110,000 Japanese soldiers. The Battle of Okinawa lasted from March 26, 1945, to September 7, 1945.

  • In the statement, Kelly noted the importance of these artifacts. Kelly said, “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.”

What’s next:

  • The artifacts were transported to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C., where they were properly packaged for transportation to Japan. Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa Prefecture, confirmed the return of the artifacts on Friday.

  • Japan is reportedly planning to hold a formal repatriation ceremony for the returned artifacts on Friday.

  • Many antiques from Okinawa are still reportedly missing, including portraits and a royal crown.

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