Expert accused of selling stolen Java artefacts denies wrongdoing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2007, 12:00am

A prominent Dutch archaeological expert, accused by Indonesian police of selling artefacts stolen from a Java museum, has denied doing anything wrong and says the statues were purchased from the region's traditional ruler, the Sultan of Solo.

The denial by Hugo Kreijger, who is well known in Hong Kong and Asian art circles, comes after police officially declared him a suspect in the case last week. 'We issued the arrest warrant on Friday. He is charged with violating the Cultural Protection laws and falsifying documents,' central Java police spokesman Syahroni said.

He said letters certifying that the statues had been owned by the sultan were fake.

Police allege Mr Kreijger conspired with a local artefacts broker, Heru Suryanto, and staff at the Radya Pustaka Museum in Solo, to steal the statues and sell them to a wealthy Indonesian businessman. Mr Heru and three museum staff confessed to police that they removed the statues, replacing them with fakes, and have been detained as witnesses in the case.

Mr Kreijger, speaking by phone from Amsterdam, said he was shocked to be accused of stealing the 4th century statues. He insists he bought them legally from the impoverished Sultan of Solo as a consultant for the property dealer Hashim Djojohadikusumo, who wants to build an archaeological museum in Jakarta.

'I am flabbergasted. Why should I steal pieces from a museum to exhibit them later in another public institute? This would be more than extremely stupid,' he said.

Mr Kreijger, a former Christie's consultant, said he had only advised Mr Hashim to buy the five Hindu and Buddhist artefacts because the Sultan of Solo wanted to sell a few pieces from his collection, and he was convinced the sale was legal. He also says Mr Hashim was keen to avoid having the objects sold to a foreign buyer and therefore leave Indonesia.

'The king needed money and wanted to sell these five pieces. It's very sad they have to sell, but they have become poor and don't have much money,' he said, saying he paid the ruler US$100,000 for the five pieces.

Although the artefacts were kept in the Radya Pustaka Museum in Solo, all the pieces in the museum belonged to the palace in Solo - known as the kraton - not the government, Mr Kreijger said, suggesting the legal basis for the case was not clear.

The kraton, via the kraton's dealer, Mr Heru, issued a letter, bearing the sultan's seal, which Mr Kreijger is convinced was genuine. He said that, as an arts dealer who had worked in the industry for more than 20 years, he could spot a copy.

'If indeed the documents are fake, I have been cheated by the intermediary too,' he said.

Mr Hashim's lawyer, Hermawan Pamungkas, said the police had yet to question the kraton staff, let alone the sultan, to confirm whether the sale was genuine.

Mr Heru's lawyer, Rusman Sakiri, has accused Mr Kreijger of pressuring his client to fake the certification letters from the sultan, according to Tempo magazine.

If the sultan's letters prove to be fake, both Mr Kreijger and Mr Heru may face further legal action. Mr Hashim's lawyer says if the artefacts were stolen from the kraton, his wealthy client would sue either Mr Heru or Mr Kreijger.

'He should know as a former Christie's dealer that he cannot buy and sell historic artefacts, except if he has permission from the government,' Mr Syahroni, the police spokesman, said. He said the state heritage body had to approve the sale of any of Indonesia's protected heritage.

But Mr Kreijger, a southeast Asian art expert who was written two books on Cambodian and Nepali art, said that until this scandal erupted he had been proud to work as Mr Hashim's dealer, helping him buy Indonesian artefacts from all over the world and return them to home soil.

'Holland for 400 years took objects out of Indonesia,' he said.

'I feel that as a Dutchman I can help bring some pieces back to Indonesia.'

Asked whether he would return to Indonesia to face the charges, Mr Kreijger said he had just appointed a lawyer, and would 'wait to see what happens'.

Indonesian police asked Interpol to help track down Mr Kreijger.

But he said he only received a summons to appear as a witness in the case last Tuesday, a day before he was asked to appear in Indonesia.

He wondered why police had not called him in Amsterdam.

A police spokesman admitted last Wednesday that they had Mr Kreijger's number but said it was up to police headquarters to decide whether to call him or contact him via Interpol.