Last week, the Boston FBI field office announced the recovery of 22 historical Japanese artifacts at a private Massachusetts home. The artifacts, which have now been returned to the Japanese island of Okinawa, had been missing for almost 80 years after they were looted during World War II. The successful repatriation comes after a yearslong investigation that began after the FBI was contacted by a family who discovered the artifacts among their deceased father's possessions. GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke about the case with Special Agent Geoff Kelly, the art crimes coordinator for FBI Boston. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: So before we get into how they were found, tell us a bit more about these artifacts. What are they, and why are they significant?

Geoff Kelly: Well, they're really some fascinating pieces of cultural patrimony. They were looted in the last days of World War II, and they represent some important pieces in Okinawa history: some ancient scrolls of Okinawa kings, some metalwork and ceramics, and really some beautiful pieces. It was impressive to see and really, very satisfying to return them.

Rath: Now, going back to the end of World War II, that's a pretty cold case. Tell us about the chain of discovery that led to these artifacts being recovered.

Kelly: Yeah, I'm used to cold cases, Arun, but this one's a cold one. They were most likely brought back at the end of the war, by a soldier. We had an unsigned typed letter that was included with some of these artifacts that showed that they came back in 1945 or 1946. The letter writer had attempted to find something out about the provenance, about the history of the piece, and he actually took one of them to Harvard to have an expert examine them at the Fogg Museum. So even back then, whoever this person was, they were pretty confident that they had something very special. It really had been a mystery for going on 80 years — until we got a call.

Rath: Tell us about that call. I'm assuming that maybe you're limited in what you can say, because the reports I've read are fairly nonspecific about where in Massachusetts, who, and all of that.

Kelly: Yeah, exactly. We want to respect the wishes of the people that came forward. They had nothing to do with the theft, nor did their family member. They just happened upon this and they did the right thing. It's a cliched term, but it really fits in the circumstances. They did some research and they found that at least a few of these articles had been registered on the FBI's National Stolen in Art File back in 2000. They contacted me because I'm the art theft coordinator for the Boston office, and we started having some conversations. They realized the importance of these objects and that they really should be going back to Okinawa, and they voluntarily surrendered them to me.

Rath: I think the vast majority of art cases like this I've heard of involve Nazi looting in Europe during World War II. Do we have a sense of how bad the postwar looting of Japan by Allied forces was? Is there a long list of still missing objects?

Kelly: There are a number of objects that are still missing, and it's really impossible to understand the scope of how much has been looted. You bring up Nazi looted art, and that was something in a different realm of actually taking property from people in Europe. I think this was more — and I'm not suggesting it's any better — but it was more like treasure hunters. They were going through the ruins of a devastated country and they were just grabbing articles that they thought would be nice souvenirs to take home. Unfortunately, these pieces don't belong to them. And they're important pieces of cultural patrimony for the Okinawans, and they need to go back to.

Rath: What I'm familiar with in terms of things that happened during the war, you hear about war trophies and more gruesome artifacts that are brought back. I don't want to sound cavalier about it, but how much of art looting is just part of war?

Kelly: Yeah, it is a part of war. Unfortunately, something that a lot of people don't understand is that one of the intrinsic elements of genocide is to destroy a culture's past, because it makes it a lot easier to destroy the future when you've erased any record of their existence. We've seen that throughout conflicts, obviously in World War II, we've seen it in Ukraine, and we've seen it in other conflict zones where an enemy will try and destroy a people's past and destroy their history, so that it makes it easier to forget that they were ever here. Very tragic.

Rath: That just raises the stakes of what you're doing to a level I never even thought about.

Kelley: Yeah, absolutely. Cultural treasures, art and antiquities really are the tangible representations of a culture and of a civilization. It's important that they remain with that group for the next generation to experience.

Rath: Do you have a sense of where things go from here? Are there more cases that you're working on? What is it like with the things that are coming on to your desk there?

Kelly: It really runs the whole gamut from fine art to cultural patrimony. This is one of these great cases when everybody wins. Whenever we think of the FBI, typically you think of a prosecution and somebody is going to go to jail, but that's not really what we do. On the art crime team, while certainly that's one aspect of it, a lot of what we do is this: repatriations of cultural patrimony, cultural heritage, Native American artifacts. And nobody goes to jail. In the end, everybody wins and this is just another example of that.

Rath: Geoff, this is so fascinating. And it's just interesting to realize how many levels this is working on in terms of, it's really not just crime, but you're working on something that's restorative as well.

Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. When you think of art theft, there's of course a federal statute for it, but then there's a number of other federal statutes that are applicable. When you look at the crime that involves art, you're really encompassing terrorism financing, money laundering, different frauds. It really runs the whole spectrum of criminality, and so we see it all when you're working art theft.

Rath: Well, Geoff, thanks for sharing this with us and please come back with your next find.

Kelly: I will definitely do that. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.