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  • Laurens Kasteleijn

Colonial restitution: where does the Netherlands stand?

April 2023 by Clara Annani & Laurens Kasteleijn for Art Law Services

“There is no place in the Dutch State Collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft.” – Ingrid Van Engelshoven

The debate over the decolonisation of European museums has gained importance across Europe over the years. In October 2020, the Advisory Committee on the National Policy Framework for Colonial Collections (hereinafter Advisory Committee) released a report recommending the Dutch government to return looted art to its former colonies in Asia, Africa, and South America.[1]

National-Museum in Jakarta, Indonesia

The report emphasises on investigating the provenance of colonial collections, by a committee of experts, and demands the creation of a national database of all the colonial collections in Dutch museums. Faced with this report, Jos van Beurden, Dutch scholar on colonial restitution, welcomed the changes, but expressed his worries as to the implementation of the report.[2] Indeed, in practice, although the Advisory Committee highly recommends the return of cultural artefacts, the decision whether to do so solely lies with the government.

Following the release of the report, former Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven, announced that the government now had efficient starting points for the formulation of draft legislation. Thus, in January 2021, the Dutch government adopted the recommendations of the Advisory Committee and published the Policy Vision on Collections from a Colonial Context.[3]

The Policy Vision

In the Policy Vision, van Engelshoven sets a clear goal: to deal with the restitution of colonial objects “carefully, in close cooperation with the country of origin”.[4] To do so, the Policy Vision calls for the formation of an independent committee composed of authoritative experts. The committee determines whether the provenance research of a good is accurate and whether the request issued by the State, usually that of the country of origin, may be granted. This makes the Netherlands the first European country to have such system.

Three categories of cultural artefacts may be distinguished from the Policy Vision, with each having their legal regime. First, cultural artefacts that were taken from a former Dutch colony will be returned unconditionally to the country of origin provided that the latter wishes for their return. Second, the decision to return cultural goods with a special significance for the country of origin (i.e., religious, historical importance) is conditional. These goods are mostly owned by the Dutch state and their provenance is hardly identifiable. Their return to the country of origin requires the assessment committee to weigh the good’s significance to all parties, including the country of origin, the relevant communities in the countries of origin and in the Netherlands.[5] Last, cultural objects from former colonies of other European colonial powers (e.g., the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria or Sri Lanka) require a similar weighing of interests by the assessment committee. This raises concerns amongst Dutch scholars as practice has shown that the weighing of interests usually turns out to be beneficial to the possessor of the artworks.[6]

The Policy Vision has been met with criticism from the Dutch academics. Wouter Veraart, a professor of legal philosophy at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit and an expert in restitution, shared his doubts: “it is strange that cultural objects taken by other colonising powers would be treated differently from those taken by the Dutch under the same violent conditions” he says.[7]

Independent research

Alongside the government’s policy, a research consortium of nine Dutch museums and Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit developed practical guidance for museums on colonial collections. The project was set to examine the different routes taken by cultural goods to arrive at museums, the way in which the artefacts were sold (i.e., whether it voluntary or under duress), and the future of the goods, notably the possible modes of return.[8] The board leading this research comprises Dutch and external researchers, mainly experts from Africa, Asia and the Americas.

However, this is not unusual for Dutch museums. Indeed, the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures, which oversees the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal, established its own guidelines for colonial restitution in March 2019.[9]

Where does the Netherlands stand today?

Due to the parliamentary elections of March 2021 and subsequent creation of a government in January 2022, the Policy Vision has not yet been approved by the government. However, in the Summer of 2022, State Secretary Gunay Uslu informed the Parliament that she had adopted the Policy Vision and emphasised the need to work carefully, but not too slowly.[10] Moreover, State Secretary Uslu visited Indonesia following their wish to initiate the repatriation process. In July 2022 Indonesia government issued a list of regalia and religious objects, as well as a collection of fossils to be returned by Dutch museums.[11] A skull cap belonging to Java Man

Although recent events in Europe, such as the new French law allowing the return of 27 looted artefacts, have shown the partial engagement of certain European countries in restoring cultural goods, it remains that for restitution the path from ideas to action can be a long and winding one.

Please contact Art Law Services if you have further questions about restitution or want to submit a case to the Restitutions Committee / want us to assess whether a closed case is suitable for resubmission. Our experts are ready to assist you.


[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] Jos van Beurden « Hard and Soft Law Measures for the Restitution of Colonial Cultural Collections – Country Report : The Netherlands » [6] Ibid. [7] [8] [9] See report : [10] [11]

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