Family Finds 22 Stolen WWII Artifacts From the Battle of Okinawa in Their Father’s Attic

By: Beth Moreton | Last updated: Apr 02, 2024

Despite WWII coming to an end almost 80 years ago, various artifacts from that era are still coming to light to this day.

More recently, a family found 22 stolen WWII artifacts when they were in the process of clearing out their father’s attic, which delighted both them and historians throughout the world. 

The Family Found the Artifacts While Clearing out Their Father’s Attic

CNBC has reported that while the Massachusetts family was clearing out their deceased father’s attic, they came across the artifacts. 

One of the Japanese artifacts. It is a painting of a person in traditional Japanese dress. The painting is slightly torn and faded in some parts.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

The family wished to remain anonymous, but after realizing there were stolen artifacts, decided to turn them into the FBI.  

The 22 Artifacts Are From the 18th and 19th Centuries

The artifacts found are believed to be from the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the Independent

A person wearing a blue latex glove holding a pot, which is one of the stolen Japanese artifacts. The pot is dark brown and has different patterns on it. The pot is being held next to a white and black ruler.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

Some of the artifacts include portraits, a 19th-century hand-drawn map of Okinawan, pottery, and ceramics. 

The Artifacts Depict Okinawan Royalty

The 22 artifacts the family found in their father’s attack are from Japan.

A black-and-white depiction of Okinawan royalty. The king is at the center of the picture and is holding a candle and wearing a crown and robes. There are people on either side of him, some are holding candles, and others are fanning him.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

The majority of the artifacts depict Okinawan royalty, which suggests that the artifacts had been stolen during WWII. 

The Man Was Unlikely to Have Stolen the Artifacts

Even though the artifacts are believed to have been stolen, it is highly unlikely that the man whose attic they were found in stole them.

A Japanese map. It is slightly old and worn and the map shows some hills with some words written in Japanese.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

This is because he didn’t take part in the Pacific Theater, so had no way of being able to obtain the artifacts himself. Therefore, they were likely given to him by someone who had. 

The Artifacts Have Been Entered Into the FBI’s National Stolen Art File

The FBI’s National Stolen Art File contains various artifacts the FBI knows were stolen and need to be returned.

Three pots and vases as part of the Okinawan artifacts. Two of the pots are brown and the other is light brown. The pot in the middle has a label on it with a string attached.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

It was the Prefectural Board of Education in Japan that had reported the artifacts as missing in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File back in 2001, to alert the authorities to the fact they were gone. Over 20 years later, they were finally returned.


The FBI Compared the Artifacts to Looted Artifacts From the 1940s

At first glance, the FBI couldn’t be sure the artifacts were those that had been stolen from Japan at the end of WWII.

Some of the Okinawan artifacts. The artifacts are on a tray and there is a picture of plates, vases, and pots. One plate at the front is blue and white and the rest are brown. Some of them have labels attached by a string.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

They compared the artifacts to photos of them from the mid-1940s and were able to assert from this that they were the stolen artifacts, as stated by the FBI.


A Letter Also Confirmed They Were the Stolen Artifacts

Photographs alone cannot certify whether or not something is real, so officials needed something else to be certain.

A black and white painting from the Okinawan artifacts. The king is in the center and is wearing a crown and floral robe and is holding a candle. People are surrounding him. Some are fanning him and others are holding candles.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

They found a typewritten letter among the artifacts that confirmed they were what had been stolen from Japan. 


The Artifacts Are a Key Part of Japanese Culture

Due to the national importance of the artifacts, they are considered a key part of Japanese culture.

A Okinawan painting in color. The painting is faded in some parts. The king is in the center and is holding a candle and is wearing a crown and cloak. There are people on either side of him, with some fanning the king and others holding a candle.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

The FBI has said it is important they are returned to their rightful origin and owners to assert their place back into the culture they came from. 


A Museum Checked the Artifacts Before They Went Back to Japan

Due to how delicate and important they are, the artifacts had to be checked and packed thoroughly before being sent back to Japan.

The Okinawan artifacts are all packaged up. They are wrapped up in bubble wrap and brown packaging. A person is reaching into the box wearing a black latex glove.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art thoroughly examined the artifacts first and then ensured they were properly packed to ensure they would withstand the journey back to Japan.


A Formal Repatriation Ceremony Will Take Place in Japan

As a way to celebrate the artifacts returning to Japan, a formal repatriation is set to take place, although no exact date has been given.

A repatriation ceremony. There is a US Army Japan Command Chaplain at the front in green. There are other people behind him in army uniform.

Source: SSGT Cohen A. Young, ASAF/Wikimedia Commons

However, The Collector states the artifacts were presented to Japanese officials during a ceremony on March 15, 2024, but that the formal repatriation will take place at a later date. 


The FBI Recognized the Public’s Importance in Finding Stolen Art

One aspect of this case that the FBI was able to recognize was the public’s importance when it came to finding stolen art.

A blue and white patterned plate against a brown background. There is a black and white ruler going up alongside it to measure it.

Source: FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation/YouTube

The family looking into the artifacts, realizing they were wanted, and handing them in was a good example of why the public knowing about stolen artifacts and other objects can help in finding them and returning them to the rightful owner.