Universiteit Leiden

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Alicia Schrikker
Elif Kırakaya

Looted art returned to Sri Lanka: ‘It was a job tracing what came from where'

A cannon, a sabre, guns: these Sri Lankan objects had been in the Rijksmuseum for centuries. In early December, they were returned to Sri Lanka. Associate Professor of Colonial History Alicia Schrikker led the research that formed the basis for the restitution and published a volume on the findings with colleagues from Sri Lanka.

As discussions about looted art increasingly flare up in society, it is becoming more important to be able to determine the provenance of objects. In 2020, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science therefore commissioned the development of a methodology for provenance research in colonial collections, to be carried out by the Rijksmuseum (the National Museum of the Netherlands), the Wereldmuseum (the National Museum of Ethnography and the Tropenmuseum) and the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies).

'It is quite difficult to determine under what circumstances an object was obtained.'

'I was invited to lead the Sri Lankan work package,' says Schrikker, 'but in practice it was really a collective project: I worked in close collaboration with curators, art historians and weapons specialists in Sri Lanka, and experts from all over the world. The Conservation & Science Department of the Rijksmuseum carried out all kinds of measurements, and much of the archival research in the Netherlands was done by one of my former students, Doreen van den Boogaart, a real sleuth. '

Search for clues

In total, Schrikker and her team examined six Sri Lankan objects, long suspected to have been taken as loot by the VOC after the plundering of a palace in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy in 1765. However, it was not a foregone conclusion that the objects were unlawfully housed in Dutch museums, Schrikker emphasized: 'It is quite difficult to determine under what circumstances an object was obtained. You need to find a source that explicitly states that a gun or a sabre was taken at that moment in that place. Moreover, over the years, different stories circulated about the history of the objects, which caused some confusion. For instance, the cannon was believed for a long time to have been a gift, and in the nineteenth century, the cannon and the golden sabre were attributed to Michiel de Ruyter. The objects themselves were also puzzling: for example, the cannon has a European shape but bears an inscription in Sinhalese, and the silver and gold ornamentation is typically Kandyan. So, was it a European or a Sri Lankan cannon?'

Search for clues

The investigation was not just about determining whether looting has taken place but also about eliminating other theories. The researchers often had to rely on material analysis for this purpose. 'We conducted the research during the COVID-19 pandemic,' Schrikker recalled. 'As a result, we couldn't physically access the objects but examined highly detailed photos in teams.' Surprisingly, this approach worked very well: 'It may have worked even better than getting together in a workshop, looking at a PowerPoint on a big screen.'

In fact, the details often revealed much about the origins of the objects. 'It was a case fo searching for clues,' says Schrikker. 'If a sabre has a solid gold hilt, 138 diamonds, and strong symbolism in the ornaments, the likelihood of it being a royal object is very high. If you also know that it ended up in the stadtholder's collection after 1760 and before 1795, it almost certainly must have been taken during the plundering of the palace.'

The objects illustrate the intricate interplay between local, global, and colonial history.

Moreover, this approach uncovered various other details that shed new light on the objects. For example, the rubies in the golden sabre were found to have come from Myanmar, an area with which the Buddhist Kingdom of Kandy had religious and cultural ties. The cannon was part of a larger set, with the other two now located in Windsor Castle, presumably taken by the British during the wars with Kandy in the early 19th century. This discovery allowed us to map out the production process of the cannon and establish that it was decorated in different phases: the initial ornaments were probably applied during casting in the Republic, while the inscription and decoration of gold, silver, and gemstones were added later in Kandy. These objects beautifully illustrate the intricate interplay between the local, global, and colonial history of Sri Lanka.'

Mixed Reactions

Ultimately, Schrikker and her team managed to establish that all the objects examined were most likely loot. In July 2023, on the advice of the recently established Colonial Collection Committee, State Secretary Gunay Uslu decided to return the six objects to Sri Lanka.

'Some Sri Lankans are skeptical about the return.'

While reactions to this decision in the Netherlands were overwhelmingly positive, opinions in Sri Lanka varied. 'Some Sri Lankans are very pleased with the return,' says Schrikker. 'Others are skeptical. Sri Lanka has endured a long period of civil war that has deeply affected society, and it is currently facing a profound economic crisis. People wonder if the restitution will be used to cover up this downturn and strengthen nationalism.'

Engaging in Dialogue

For Schrikker, this isn't a reason to retain the objects in the Netherlands. 'Nira Wickramasinghe (LIAS) wrote an excellent epilogue for our book, reflecting on this issue in the context of previous restitutions in the British-Sri Lankan context. We should have more of these conversations. What is just? What is the best place for such artefacts? In what way do the returned objects reconnect and gain new political-cultural significance? The latter question is sometimes overlooked in the Netherlands. Currently, the objects are beautifully exhibited at the National Museum of Colombo, incorporating much of the findings from our research. And independent groups, such as the Colombo History and Memory Dialogue Group, organise thematic museum walks and discussion sessions, ensuring that the objects continue to trigger diverse activities and interests.'

The research has resulted in various reports used in the restitution application. Additionally, Schrikker’s and her colleagues' findings have been compiled in the book Weapons of Persuasion. The Global Wanderings of Six Kandyan Objects released on 5 December. The book places the objects in their historical and art historical contexts, discusses the possibilities and limitations of provenance research, and reflects on the significance of restitution in the complex political reality of Sri Lanka.

Since November 2022, Schrikker has been a member of the Colonial Collections Committee, chaired by Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You, which provided advice on various Indonesian restitution requests over the past year. She was not involved in the committee's advice on the Sri Lankan objects. For more information, see the website of the Comittee.

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