BOSTON — A local family that found looted World War II artifacts in their late father’s personal effects “did the right thing” and alerted the FBI, leading to the feds returning the historic art to Japan after eight decades.

The FBI Boston division announced that it has recovered 22 historic artifacts that were looted after the Battle of Okinawa. These artifacts had been missing for almost 80 years.

The feds got a tip last year after a Massachusetts family sifted through their late father’s personal effects and came across what appeared to be very valuable Asian art. The art included portraits, scrolls, pottery, and an ancient map.

“It looked old and it looked valuable,” said FBI Boston Special Agent Geoffrey Kelly, a member of the FBI Art Crime Team. “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.

“And once they realized that they were stolen, they reached out to the FBI and it came to me,” Kelly added.

Among the artifacts was an unsigned, typewritten letter stating that these items were collected in Okinawa during the last days of World War II.


The FBI conducted an investigation, and was able to authenticate the artworks.

“One of the basic things to do in this is just do a side-by-side comparison,” Kelly said. “And so we had images of the looted antiquities that were looted sometime in the mid-1940s.

“Not great quality photos, black and white, but still clear enough that you could compare them side-by-side with the antiquities in Massachusetts, and form a pretty good conclusion that they were a match,” he added.

The 22 artifacts – some of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries – represent a significant piece of Okinawan history. The artifacts include six portraits, a hand-drawn map of Okinawa dating back to the 19th century, and various pieces of pottery and ceramics.

“There’s something very climactic about unfurling a scroll,” Kelly said. “I didn’t do it when I recovered it initially because I certainly didn’t want to damage it.”

“The first time that they were unfurled, that we could see them, was at the Smithsonian with the experts,” he added. “And it really is an exciting moment when you watch the scroll unfurl in front of you, and you just witness history and you witness something that hasn’t been seen by many people in a very long time.”


The family’s late father was a World War II veteran, but never served in the Pacific Theater. The local family wants to remain anonymous.

“I think one of the biggest takeaways from this entire investigation is the fact that in this case, the family did the right thing,” Kelly said. “They did everything right. They had some questioned artifacts that they thought might not belong here in this country. They checked the National Stolen Art File. And when they realized that it may, in fact, have been looted, cultural property, they did what they should have done, which is call the FBI.

“We’re not looking to put people in jail because they happened to inherit some objects that have some questionable or dubious provenance,” he added. “We’re here to help to make sure that at the end of the day, it goes back to its rightful owner.”

The National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institute helped the FBI ensure that the artifacts were properly packaged for transport back to Japan.

The governor of Okinawa Prefecture on Friday announced the return of the artifacts to Japan in a news conference, saying, “It is very meaningful that the FBI, along with others in the U.S. government, have cooperated to realize this return.”

A formal repatriation ceremony for the artifacts will be held in Japan at a later date.

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