Javanese demand repatriation of Minto's stone of contention

A thousand-year-old relic inscribed with the name of an ancient Javanese king could be returned to Indonesia from its home on a family estate near Hawick.

Despite having stood quietly in a leafy Borders garden since the early 19th century, the Minto Stone has found itself at the centre of a four-year campaign by the Indonesian government which claims the historic artefact, which dates back to AD982, was wrongfully removed from its homeland almost two centuries ago.

The carved stone, which holds significant symbolic meaning for Indonesians, stands two metres tall and bears an ancient inscription of Javanese king Sri Maharaja Rakai Pangkaja Dyah Wawa Sri Wijayalokanamottungga.

Also known as the Sanggurah Stone, the 3.8 tonne icon was originally taken from the town of Malang by British colonial explorer Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1812 after he instigated the capture of Java from the Dutch, during which time he was appointed Lieutenant Governor by Lord Minto, Governor of India.

As a token of appreciation, Stamford Raffles gave the prize to the first Earl of Minto who transported it to his Roxburghshire home where it has remained in the family since.

But now, controversial businessman and art collector Hashim Djojohadikusumo has been called in to lead negotiations for the carving to be returned to what Indonesian officials describe as its rightful home in Jakarta, where it would be put on display at the national museum.

Based in London, Hashim heads an organisation dedicated to the preservation of Indonesia's cultural and archaeological heritage (YKHD) but hit the headlines in his homeland recently after stolen archaeological artefacts were found at his home in Jakarta.

Hari Untoro Drajat, director general of history and archaeology at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, said: "The Minto Stone is an important historical artefact and a crucial source of information.

"It contains the history of the Mataram kingdom in Central Java and its eventual shift of power to East Java.

"The government has been attempting to secure the return of the artefact since 2004, but government-to-government negotiations have proven difficult because the relic is currently in the custodianship of Minto trustees. So we requested that YKHD step in to facilitate the return, because we recognised that non-state parties would have more leeway in negotiating."

According to reports in Jakarta, Hashim, who offered to fund efforts to return the stone, including transportation costs of more than 3million, has met three times with Timothy Melgund – the 7th Earl of Minto and head of the estate where the stone still stands – to discuss its return to the island of Java.

Speaking yesterday, Lord Minto, who heads stationery firm Paperchase, dismissed these reports as inaccurate but admitted talks were under way.

He told TheSouthern the stone had been on the estate for nearly 200 years and was as important to the family now as it was when it first arrived.

He said: "There has been no demand by the Indonesian government for it to be returned.

“We received an approach from them and we’re currently in talks.

“I don’t know what all the fuss is about – nobody here even knew it existed until recently.”

However, the campaign for its return has sparked much interest in Scotland where the repatriation of historical artefacts has become an increasingly hot topic as government ministers lobby for the return of the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum in London.

Just last month, the National Museum of Scotland announced it would return an aboriginal skull to Tasmania and, in 2007, nine Maori heads were returned to New Zealand by the Marischal Museum at the University of Aberdeen.

However, despite describing the fact that only 11 of the 82 original Lewis Chessmen pieces are housed in Scotland as “unacceptable”, both First Minister Alex Salmond and Culture Minister Linda Fabiani have declined to engage in the debate over the Minto Stone which, they say, is a private matter between Minto trustees and the Indonesian government.