22 artifacts smuggled to US after World War II returned to Japan

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Artifacts smuggled from Okinawa at the end of World War II were recovered by the FBI and returned to Japan

22 artifacts smuggled to US after World War II returned to Japan

Smuggled out of Okinawa, Japan at the end of World War II, the 22 artifacts were lost in the depths of history for almost 80 years, only to be discovered by the FBI last year hidden in the attic of a private residence in Massachusetts.

FBI Boston Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, of the Bureau's Art Crime Team, announced the return of artifacts to their home in Japan. The successful operation involved collaboration between the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Smithsonian Institution.

The FBI began investigating the case in January 2023. Special Agent Geoffrey J. Kelly of the FBI Boston Field Office received a complaint from a family that found some unique items while sorting through their deceased father’s belongings. Their father was a World War II veteran but never served in the Pacific Theater.

“They came across some what appeared to be very valuable Asian art,” said Kelly, who is the art crime coordinator for FBI Boston and a member of the FBI's Art Crime Team.

“There were some scrolls, there were some pottery pieces, there was an ancient map. They looked old and 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.”

The FBI recovered 22 artifacts in total: six painted scrolls from the 18th and 19th centuries – three of which were one piece and appear to have been divided into three pieces – a hand-drawn map of Okinawa dating back to the 19th century, and various pieces of pottery and ceramics. A typewritten letter was also found with the artifacts in Massachusetts, helping confirm they were looted during the last days of World War II.

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

The FBI transported the artifacts from Massachusetts to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C., where the scrolls were unfurled for the first time in many years, revealing portraits of Okinawan royalty in vivid reds, golds, and blue accents. 

The National Museum of Asian Art assisted the FBI in ensuring that the artifacts were properly packaged for transport. Col. Scott DeJesse and U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) 38 G Monuments Men and Women led the effort to secure and transport the artifacts to Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service provided additional support, and FBI legal attache office in Tokyo was responsible for the handover of the artifacts in Japan. On March 15, 2024, the official handover took place, and Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa Prefecture, announced the return of the artifacts.

Source: Newsroom

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