Family Discovers Trove Of Stolen Japanese Art In Massachusetts Attic

Published March 19, 2024
Updated March 20, 2024

The FBI recovered and returned 22 pieces of Japanese art likely stolen during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Looted Okinawa Artifacts

FBISome of the artifacts recovered from the Massachusetts home.

A family in Massachusetts discovered a trove of stolen Japanese artifacts after cleaning the home of their recently deceased father.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that unknown perpetrators likely looted the 22 items during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, and now the organization is celebrating their return back home to Japan.

Discovering The Art In The Most Unexpected Place

Okinawa Map

FBIThe hand-drawn 19th-century map of Okinawa, Japan, found in the home.

The Massachusetts family discovered the artifacts while cleaning out the house of their late father, a World War II veteran. It was a solemn moment that quickly turned bizarre once they ventured into the home’s attic.

According to the FBI’s press release, the family uncovered several scrolls and pottery that seemed old and possibly valuable.

Their next step was to research the items, using online resources to discover that several of the artifacts had been listed in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File. After learning this information, the family quickly contacted the FBI’s Art Crime Team at the Boston Field Office.

“The family did the right thing. 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,” Special Agent Geoffrey J. Kelly stated in the FBI press release.

Agents identified 22 artifacts of cultural significance to Okinawa, including six scrolls, one hand-drawn map, and a collection of pottery and ceramics. A typed note suggesting that unnamed individuals stole the items during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 was also present.

“These artifacts were very culturally significant. Of course, as with any cultural patrimony, they’re important pieces of a culture’s identity. These [figures pictured in the artwork] were especially important because they were kings, Okinawan kings dating back to the 19th century. And it doesn’t take long to look at this before you realize that this is really something that needs to be repatriated,” Kelly stated.

Returning What Was Lost

The process of returning the items began at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C. There, experts carefully evaluated the artifacts and provided ideas about how to transport such rare and delicate pieces back to Japan.

The Smithsonian was also the first to open the scrolls, revealing portraits of Okinawan royalty.

“It’s an exciting moment when you watch the scroll unfurl in front of you,” Kelly stated in the press release. “You witness history, and you witness something that hasn’t been seen by many people in a very long time.”

Ultimately, the museum packaged the items and shipped them back to Okinawa.

“It is very meaningful that the FBI, along with others in the U.S. Government, have cooperated to realize this return,” stated Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa Prefecture, according to NPR.

The Japanese government plans to hold a ceremony celebrating the return of the cultural artifacts on March 22, 2024.

And while the artifacts have finally found their way home, there are still lingering questions about how they got into that Massachusetts attic. According to the family who found the items, their father never served in the Pacific Theater and therefore could not have looted the art himself. Additionally, the FBI could not identify a signature on the typewritten note found with the artifacts.

Ultimately, this era in the artifacts’ history will likely remain a mystery, but their homecoming is a great enough reason to celebrate.

After reading about the discovery of the stolen Japanese art, dive into the true history of the Monuments Men, an Allied civilian task force chosen to save precious art pieces in World War II. Then, look through these colorized photos of World War II.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.