Museum Security Network

Indonesia: Raiders of Solo's lost art

With an air of nonchalant gravitas befitting his 1300 years, Mahakala, the guardian of life and wisdom, stands inside a tiny police storeroom in Solo in central Java. Beside him are four other ancient Hindu stone deities. Opposite are five pretenders, fakes installed in Indonesia’s oldest museum, all silent witnesses to the nation’s biggest art scam. Mahakala carries a large club, ready to protect the gods, the faithful and their efforts to attain enlightenment. His statue meant much to the archaeologist Lambang Babar Purnomo – who had embarked on his own quest for truth – but for him Mahakala’s protective powers counted for little. It was Lambang who confirmed five statues in the museum were copies and five found in the home of one of Jakarta’s most well-connected businessman the stolen originals. 

It was Lambang who pointed out other protected artefacts in the man’s collection. It was Lambang who, helping to examine the Radya Pustaka Museum’s collections, revealed many more masterpieces were missing, replaced by copies. And it was the 57-year-old Lambang whose body was found in a roadside ditch last month, his neck snapped like a twig. An investigation by the Herald has revealed a web of fear, threats and intrigue surrounding the case, and a thriving international blackmarket in Indonesia’s ancient treasures.

The pillaging of the Radya Pustaka is the nation’s greatest cultural crime, the Central Java Archaeological Board says. The museum’s relics came from the grand Hindu and Buddhist empires that dominated the region before the coming of Islam – and the collections of Solo’s King Pakubuwono XIII, who sits at the apex of Indonesian royalty. In recent years the once-powerful Surakarta Kraton – the ancient name for Solo’s palace – has fallen on lean times.

The royal family divided after the death of the last king, with rival princes claiming the throne. King Pakubuwono was then accused of selling sacred relics to maintain a lavish lifestyle, an accusation vehemently denied. But Hugo Kreijger, the former Christie’s South-East Asian expert who brokered the sale of the five statues, insists the king approved the deal. The scandal also reaches into the highest levels of Jakarta’s elite.

The statues were recovered from the oil magnate Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the younger brother of Prabowo Subianto, the former commander of the elite Kopassus brigade and son-in-law of the late dictator Soeharto. It was a young archaeology student and museum guide, Andrea Ambar, who first raised concerns about missing items. She noticed a Tang dynasty ceramic was gone, then that a crystal vase, a gift from Napoleon Bonaparte to King Pakubuwono IV, had been substituted. She told the museum chief, the respected palace astrologer Mbah (Grandfather) Hadi. “He said I was talking nonsense, nothing is missing,” Ambar said. Soon after, she was fired. The termination letter said Ambar “created worrying issues”. She recalls an antiques trader from the palace, Heru Suryanto, visiting the museum with Indonesian businessmen and Hugo Kreijger.

The men appeared interested in the stone deities but also took numerous photographs of the museum’s collection of bronze statues. Last year she took some Australian student friends to the museum and noticed the Hindu statues were a different size and colour. She gave photographs to her lecturer, who alerted the archaeological board. Lambang was asked to investigate and soon confirmed the fraud. The board also began an inventory of the stone, bronze and ceramic collections, finding many more items missing – including 52 of 85 bronze statues replaced by fakes. Hundreds of other collections have not been checked, including valuable collections of sacred daggers (kris) and other heirlooms. The archaeological board’s Tri Hatmaji said the museum was full of masterpieces. “They are the evidence of the nation’s cultural works, they are simply priceless.” International networks were behind the thefts, he says, and hopes publicity will persuade collectors to return some items. The palace secretary, Princess Mung, said the museum and the palace were the victims of a serious crime.

Royal letters of authenticity accompanying the five statues – stating they were a gift from the king to his friend Kreijger – were clearly forgeries, she said. Princess Mung blames Mbah Hadi and a conspiracy by rival royals. “Behind the crime itself the palace feels there is a party who wants to overthrow us.” While Mbah Hadi and Heru had been arrested, they had admitted the crime had nothing to do with the palace, she said. Mbah Hadi and Heru have confessed to substituting the statues. Heru said Kreijger expressed interest in the museum’s statues after a visit in 2006. Heru said he approached Mbah Hadi, who rejected the offer for the statues until Heru pointed out he could put fakes in their place. The first fake was driven to the museum at 7pm on July 7, 2006. It passed Mbah Hadi’s inspection and he ordered two guards to open the museum’s back door. The next four statues took the same route out of the museum over following months. Heru says he paid Mbah Hadi $65,000 and Kreijger paid about $100,000.

Hashim’s lawyer suggests the collector paid millions for the statues, although Kreijger emphatically denies it. Kreijger requested a letter of authentication from the king, dictating its contents, Heru said, which he forged. Heru then delivered the statues to Hashim’s offices in Jakarta. In the airy, whitewashed colonial Solo courthouse, awaiting a hearing on Indonesia’s first charges of cultural heritage theft, Mbah Hadi looks more doddery pensioner than art theft mastermind. Yes, he was there when the statues were substituted, he softly told the Herald through the bars of a holding cell. “I deeply regret what happened.” Despite his confession, Mbah Hadi said he was confident of acquittal. “I am still respected by the palace. The proof is Princess Mung has already prepared an office room for me after I retire.” As he talked one thickset museum guard – also facing charges for helping move the statues – tapped Mbah Hadi on the shoulder and gestured him away.

Later, a nervous Mbah Hadi said he had been “forbidden to talk” by the palace. Princess Mung confirmed she had offered Mbah Hadi a palace room and was funding his legal defence. “It is because Mbah Hadi is already old and he has been employed by the palace to run the museum,” she said. Few believe Mbah Hadi engineered the thefts, but some investigators say there is heavy political pressure not to go further. They talk of pressure not to follow the trail to “Jakarta”, not to pursue the other missing items, not to expose the palace and not to explore links with Lambang’s death. “Mbah Hadi is very loyal to the king,” one said. “Kreijger is the key witness but he is not going to be called.” Speaking from his Amsterdam apartment, Kreijger said he was surprised that police had not contacted him.

He maintains Heru approached him on behalf of the king. “He said the king needs money, they wanted to sell things, sculptures from their collection which is based in a museum but it’s a private museum. “I said I only want to deal with it when it can stay in Indonesia because I don’t want to deal with illegal elements, so I said I know somebody in Jakarta [Hashim] who is going to create a small museum. “I showed him the pictures and he said, ‘Let’s buy them, that way we can save them for Indonesia’.” The letters from the king were “in my opinion, authentic”, Kreijger said. It was “nonsense” to suggest he dictated the contents. “You have to realise the circumstances, everyone was on top of him [Heru]. I presume he has to say things that are not as they really are. 

“It’s known in the world that they have been selling.” Kreijger said he was scheduled to meet the king during his 2006 visit to discuss the purchase, but was waiting inside the palace when the meeting was cancelled at the last minute. A renowned expert on the art of the region, he is clearly aggrieved at the publicity. “The idea was to preserve the statues so everybody could enjoy them, to bring them to a modern museum.” Hashim tells a similar story to a local magazine. “To be frank, I bought those artefacts because outside the country they were already being offered for sale.

I want those historical statues to remain in Indonesia.” Lambang Purnomo had dedicated his life to Indonesia’s historical artefacts and, with this last investigation before retiring, told his family he was determined to reveal the truth. His brother-in-law, Ibnu Subiyanto, is the provincial regent but said it was “too dangerous” for him to discuss the case with local media. Lambang had told him that despite threats “I want to finish my work with the best performance, I want to tell the true story about everything”.

An examination by another relative, a doctor, indicated Lambang had died in a professional hit, Subiyanto said. “He said it was not a traffic accident but he’s killed by someone, his neck was rotated by someone, the neck bone was broken.” The official autopsy is understood to say that Lambang died from a twisted neck but leaves the cause open. When Lambang’s body was found beside his motorcycle in a ditch beside a Yogyakarta roadway early one morning last month, the traffic police commissioner Sulistyo reportedly said his wounds were inconsistent with an accident. 

Now he says: “I said there was indication of a traffic accident. What was clear is the body has some wounds which need to be further analysed.” Evidence at the scene indicated Lambang was out of control, with 12-metre skid marks, he said. “We at the traffic police unit only judge the elements related to the traffic. The brake, for instance, was fine, the speed was at medium speed but perhaps the driver was sleepy. And there was a tree and a dip.”

When the Herald visited the site there was not a tree or dip to be seen, just a straight, six-lane roadway. A witness in an adjacent house, Erni Permatasari, said she woke early that morning. “Should it have been an accident, I should have heard the sound of something.” All Permatasari heard was a voice softly crying for help. Outside there were “no skid marks or any sign of any traffic accident” – comments supported by others who visited the scene. The archaeological board’s Tri confirms Lambang was the key expert witness in the Solo case and had been “very frank” in describing his findings and other protected items in Hashim’s collection. 

Since Lambang’s death, Tri has avoided going out at night and has removed the Government-issue numberplates on his car. He is concerned that Lambang’s dedication may count for nothing. “I’m afraid if the case is not opened almost all archaeologists will be afraid to express the truth.” It is a fear shared by those Lambang inspired.

A week after his death school students in Solo who helped compile the Radya Pustaka’s inventory gathered outside the museum’s gates. They wore black armbands and carried signs reading “Goodbye father Lambang” and demanding an investigation into his death.

“He was kind, willing to explain all about artefacts to us,” said one young boy. Lambang “didn’t understand who is friend and foe”, his brother-in-law said. “He didn’t realise that archaeology is a dangerous field.” 

http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/

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