THE WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle has been hit by claims that relics in its showcase World War I centenary exhibition are stolen property.
The once-powerful Clunies-Ross family, which owned the Cocos Islands from 1886 to 1978, has asked the museum to hand over the artefacts, which were loaned to the museum by the von Mücke family in Germany.
The Clunies-Ross family has reported the items as stolen to the Australian Federal Police—which has jurisdiction over the Cocos Islands—and is considering taking legal action.
The family contacted the German high commission but say the claim was not taken seriously.
The contested artefacts form part of the exhibition The Last Gentlemen of War, which commemorates the centenary of the Battle of Cocos. The Australian navy’s first sea battle saw HMAS Sydney defeat the German light cruiser Emden.
Included in the display are a ship’s wheel, book, sextant, light and ruler from the Clunies-Ross’ schooner Ayesha, which the museum’s display notes acknowledge had been “stolen” by German sailors fleeing the aftermath of the battle.
John Clunies-Ross, who still lives on the islands where he’s a local councillor, told the Herald he’d only recently become aware any relics had survived.
“When the German high commission visited Cocos Islands in November 2014 and presented a lifebuoy from the Ayesha to the Cocos community, I was intrigued,” he said.
He contacted relatives of the Emden’s crew and discovered that after the war, a crate of material from the Ayesha had been anonymously delivered to Hellmuth von Mücke, the lieutenant who’d led a landing party onto the islands: Leutnant von Mücke and 54 sailors had been sent ashore to destroy a wireless station but were marooned when the Sydney sailed over the horizon and blasted the Emden onto a reef.
von Mücke repaired the leaky Ayesha and the crew’s six-month voyage home, including a desert march and attacks by hostile Bedouin tribes, became the stuff of German legend. Along the way they scuttled the boat and a crate of material was confiscated by authorities in Constantinople (Istanbul) until its mysterious arrival in Germany.
Mr Clunies-Ross says after discovering this information, he called his father (John Snr), who lives in Perth. Clunies-Ross senior, the last of the clan to hold the self-proclaimed title “King of the Cocos Islands” visited the Fremantle exhibition.
“He instructed me to ‘do what was necessary’ to regain ownership of our family’s historic articles,” Mr Clunies-Ross Jr says.
He reported the matter to the AFP and was advised he would have to launch civil proceedings.
The family has legal advice the commandeering of the Ayesha was an act of war and therefore beyond the courts’ jurisdiction, but the taking of personal items was looting.
Des Griffin, the Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow at the Australian Museum and one of the nation’s foremost experts in repatriating cultural material, agrees.
“If there’s an acknowledgement that it was stolen, and that it was the Clunies-Ross’ boat, it seems to be likely that the claim would stand,” Dr Griffin said.
He says there are similarities with the return of Nazi loot, where claimants merely have to show they have “good title” for the material to be returned. Dr Griffin says it could end up a lawyers’ picnic and the WA Maritime Museum will have to think carefully about how it responds to the claim, particularly in light of the National Gallery of Australia’s humiliating return of an 11th century Indian idol last year, which was found to have been plundered by a thief.
WA Museum CEO Alec Coles says the organisation has received a call from Michael Hender, a Perth businessman representing the Clunies-Ross family, but it would need a formal request to progress the matter.
“[Mr Hender] neither specified the items to which they were referring, nor did [he] provide detailed information about the circumstances under which those items might have been obtained,” Mr Coles told the Herald.
“Should the museum receive a formal request detailing those items which may be disputed and the basis of that disputation, it would of course consider it with due respect to the interests of all the parties concerned.”
by STEVE GRANT