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Indonesian antiquities thefts show no sign of abating

Fakes left in place of stolen artefacts in elaborate webs of deceit

The discovery in April that around 40 ancient manuscripts were missing from the library of Indonesia’s oldest museum, the Radya Pustaka in Solo, Java, and the theft in March of a ninth-century bronze Buddha from the Balaputradewa Museum in Palembang, Sumatra, are the latest instances of an increasingly endemic problem in the Southeast Asian country.

Ani Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s first lady, recently urged for greater efforts to protect the country’s cultural heritage. Speculation has been rife about the real extent of the problem, with suggestions that museum collections throughout Indonesia may be filled with fakes left to disguise as-yet-undiscovered thefts.

At the centre of this furore has been the 120-year-old Radya Pustaka museum, where it is estimated that up to 70% of the collection may have been taken or replaced. The missing manuscripts are perhaps the least of the problems it has faced, although the subsequent realisation that many had been absent since 1977—and some had later been offered for sale to the University of Indonesia—served as a reminder that the issue was not a new one. There were also thefts of stone sculptures from the museum in 2001 and 2002, but the events that placed it firmly in the media spotlight occurred after 2005, when a young student guide noticed that some artefacts including five valuable stone sculptures had been replaced by fakes. The resulting investigation would see the museum director jailed, one of Indonesia’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen tried and acquitted, a former Christie’s specialist on the run from Interpol, and an archaeologist witness and whistleblower killed in a mysterious motorcycle accident.

Solo’s Radya Pustaka museum was founded by the royal family, which is still technically responsible for its administration. Located in central Java, around 600km south-east of Jakarta, Solo—or Surakarta as it is more properly known—was the capital of one of the two independent sultanates that ruled on the island from the 1700s until the creation of the Indonesian nation in 1946. Since then the power of the royal family had waned considerably, and after the death of King Pakubuwono XII in 2004, the family split into rival factions, and the new King Pakubuwono XIII’s wealth was considerably dissipated.

When archaeology student Ambar Amborowatiningsih reported suspicions about the Radya Pustaka’s collection to museum director and palace astrologer K.R.H. Darmodipuro—or Mbah Hadi as he was also known—she was fired, but her university contacted the East Java Antiquities and Relics Conservation Board (BP3), and a team led by archaeologist Lambang Barbur Purnomo was sent to investigate and inventory some of the primary collections at the museum.

Mr Purnomo immediately noticed that five stone sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities dating from the fourth to the tenth centuries had been replaced by fakes, while other missing objects included a Tang dynasty ceramic and a crystal vase given by Napoleon Bonaparte to King Pakubuwono IV.

The resulting police investigation quickly found that their leads went to the top of Indonesian society, and at one point the king was interviewed. It was discovered that museum director Mr Darmodipuro, in collusion with financier and antiquities dealer Heru Suryanto, had sold the statues to Hugo Kreijger, a former Asian art specialist at Christie’s, Amsterdam, for around $65,000. He in turn had sold them to oil baron Hashim Djojohadikusumo, one of the wealthiest men in Indonesia, whose brother was married to the daughter of the late dictator Suharto.

Mr Djojohadikusumo, a prolific antiquities collector who has plans to build a private museum in Jakarta, claimed that he paid a much greater, multi-million-dollar sum for the statues, having been shown receipts stating that they were being sold on behalf of King Pakubuwono XIII. He said he had bought them mainly to prevent them leaving Indonesia. Nevertheless he was charged with not registering the antiquities with the authorities. Suspicions persisted that the theft had been carried out on behalf of the king, and Mr Kreijger, who had fled to Amsterdam, insisted that he had bought them directly from a palace source. This was vigorously denied by the palace, who claimed that the assumption was based on a series of forged documents.

In 2008, as the trial neared, Mr Purnomo, the archaeologist who was to have been one of the main witnesses for the prosecution, was found dead next to his motorcycle beside a road near Yogyakarta. It was ruled an accident, but few believed this since he had been receiving death threats since the investigation started.

Mr Darmodipuro and Mr Suryanto both received 18 months in prison, while in a separate trial Mr Djojohadikusumo was acquitted. Mr Kreijger, once a respected scholar on Himalayan art, is reportedly residing in Amsterdam but remains on Interpol’s red list. The matter is by no means fully solved however. The inventory made at the request of the BP3 revealed that of the Radya Pustaka museum’s 85 bronze sculptures, 52 were fake. The jailed director and financier have denied any knowledge of the missing bronzes, and their value has been said to be inestimable. A police investigation that commenced last September has offered little hope that anything will be recovered. A small success was achieved in Palembang when the bronze Buddha stolen from the Balaputradewa Museum was recovered after a 17-year-old suspect was shot in the leg by police. Records showed that the same sculpture had been stolen and recovered once before in 1992.

There are few who doubt that organised cartels continue to pillage Indonesian museums with impunity. Lack of funds is an obvious problem, but it has also been claimed that museums have never been culturally understood in Indonesia in the same way as the west.