Law, Provenance Research, and Restitution of Colonial Cultural Property: Reflections on (In)Equality and a Sri Lankan Object in the Netherlands

Naazima Kamardeen,

Jos van Beurden


The status of colonial objects in European museums touches upon a matrix of legal and historical issues. This article engages with some of them, while referring to the case of a Sri Lankan object in the possession of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (RMA) in the Netherlands: a ceremonial cannon looted by the Dutch from the King of Kandy in 1765. The article offers a historical overview of the European colonial domination of Ceylon, distinguishing between the Portuguese, Dutch, and British periods, and for each period distinguishes the nature and the size of the confiscated heritage. It also analyses Sri Lanka’s legal title to the cannon, and the discrepancy between the international and mostly Euro-centric legal regime and Sri Lanka’s own legal framework. The article moves on to analyses of and reflections about the type of provenance research practiced by the RMA, as well as the broader efforts in the Netherlands for better provenance research. The importance of the cannon for both Sri Lanka and the Netherlands, as well as earlier efforts to retrieve it, are also described and evaluated. In its conclusions, the article proffers suggestions for more balance and equality in the provenance research efforts. The contribution covers legal studies, history, and museum studies and is based on the literature, historical catalogues, and other documents, as well as the practice of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries titution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP).

Słowa kluczowe: colonial cultural object, Ceylon, Sri Lanka, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, provenance research, restitution

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