Okinawa crown mystery defies leads after nearly 70 years
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 18, 2013
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Patty Sternfelt remembers her grandfather filling volumes of handwritten books with accounts and keepsakes from his time in the Navy Reserve.
She spent her childhood south of Boston playing with kimonos and sashes that Cmdr. Carl Sternfelt brought home from his tours of Japan and the Pacific in the 1940s.
“I saw every artifact he brought back,” said Sternfelt, who was named trustee of her grandfather’s books after he died in 1976. “I admired him and looked up to him.”
Far away on Okinawa, her veteran grandfather is remembered differently. He has long been the main suspect in one of the island’s most enduring mysteries: the looting of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s royal crown during World War II.
“I chased him all the way to his grave — I was tempted to even open his grave one time to see if it was in there,” said Alex Kishaba, an Okinawan who tracked the artifact for years.
But investigations on both sides of the Pacific finally appear to have wound down. For more than a decade, no new evidence linking the U.S. sailor or his surviving family to the crown has surfaced. Time is testing the theory that the Sternfelts or a museum have stashed it away somewhere in Boston since the war — and raised the possibility the crown might be lost to history.
A team of Japanese restoration experts in white gloves and sanitary masks huddled in a climate-controlled storage room on Okinawa in August, using a small flashlight to examine each fabric strip and bead on the remaining sister crown of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
“Fortunately, there is one crown that remains intact, but locating the missing crown is very important for us,” Naha City Museum of History senior curator Masaaki Hokama said.
Two nearly identical royal crowns — both decorated with gold, coral, crystal and jasper beads and golden dragon hairpins — were once worn as ceremonial headdresses by the Sho family kings who ruled Okinawa for hundreds of years before being deposed by Japan in the late 1800s.
During World War II, one crown survived in Tokyo with Sho descendants and was eventually donated to the Naha museum. The second crown, along with a trove of Sho treasures, was controlled by a group of royal trustees who remained on Okinawa as the United States poised for an invasion in 1945.
Hoping to avoid damage during the fighting, they placed the silk crown and other artifacts in a cave on the Shuri palace grounds in the capital, Naha, according to a memoir by the only trustee to survive the war, Bokei Maehira.
When Maehira eventually returned to the cave after the war, he found the area occupied by U.S. forces and the crown and royal treasure looted.
“The symbol of the kingdom, the heritage that we take pride in, was taken away from Okinawa because of the war,” Hokama said.
Branded a thief
The disappearance has never been a mystery to Kishaba.
“The man who stole this [crown], of course, was Carl Sternfelt,” said Kishaba, who founded the Ryukyu American Historical Research Society on Okinawa and worked for years to have the crown and other cultural artifacts returned to the island.
In 1991, Kishaba partnered with the late Maj. Gen. James Day, a Medal of Honor recipient and former commander of Marine Corps bases in Japan, on the celebrated return of the Daishou temple bell, which was taken to the U.S. by Marines after World War II.
But his persistence in hunting the crown through the 1990s would eventually cast him as a “troublemaker who talks too straight,” even among some fellow Okinawans.
“I dug up every hole you could think of,” Kishaba said.
The main evidence implicating Sternfelt surfaced almost 70 years ago.
In the late 1940s, the Navy officer walked into Harvard University with a very unusual collection of Japanese documents. Experts identified them as the Omoro Soshi, a collection of ancient Okinawan poems dating back 1,000 years and described as the island’s Book of Genesis. The sacred text had been stashed alongside the royal crown just before the Battle of Okinawa.
That connection has forever after made Sternfelt the most likely suspect in the crown case.
The Omoro Soshi was formally returned to Okinawa in 1953. but Kishaba has always believed Sternfelt hid the crown, possibly in a secret compartment in his home, or sold it to a Boston-area museum such as the Museum of Fine Arts.
By 1997, he had confronted the sailor’s surviving family, cornering his son in a Boston apartment building hallway and interviewing his aging widow in a nursing home. When the case would not crack, he went to the media with his research. National newspapers published stories pointing to Sternfelt as the prime suspect.
“His family would not cooperate except for his wife, who was senile in the old-age home,” he said. “They kept running away from me, so I decided to smear their name … [so] that everyone would know him as a thief.”
Hidden in plain sight
Kishaba gave up his quest for the crown years ago, now focusing his professional life on children’s education on Okinawa.
Any investigation into the crown’s disappearance would start with Sternfelt, said Anthony Amore, a security expert and author who has written about art theft.
“It is not unusual for [art] to be stolen and it to be kept in obscurity away from prying eyes,” Amore said.
The crown’s main value is cultural. Sources interviewed for this story were unsure how much it would be worth. And thieves of rare paintings or artifacts often do not realize the difficulty of unloading them.
They can rarely be sold, since potential buyers want to spend on items they can show off, Amore said.
So thieves can be stuck hiding artifacts throughout their lives, and many times objects are returned by a second generation of heirs, Amore said.
“The first place I would want to check is at the home for a secret wall or hiding place,” he said.
‘He did the right thing’
For Patty Sternfelt, the cloud of the stolen crown has meant years of trying to protect her grandfather and her family name.
“Anything I’ve ever seen in the past, I usually wrote to the person and basically said, 'What you’re writing is not true,' ” Sternfelt said. “It’s not fair. After a person is gone, you can’t stand up for yourself.”
Of all six grandchildren, the 50-year-old Rhode Island resident had the closest relationship with her grandfather, who sold insurance and worked part time as the official photographer for the local police station and fire department.
They tinkered with short- and long-range radios together and shared all the souvenirs he brought back from his travels before he died suddenly in 1976. When Sternfelt grew up, she became an insurance broker like him.
Though her grandfather never spoke of his service on Okinawa, Sternfelt said she is certain he never had the crown — he would have displayed it at home or shared it. She could not understand why Kishaba never accepted it.
“If there was even a shred of proof, I could understand how bold [Kishaba] was,” Sternfelt said. “He showed up at my grandmother’s nursing home without any notice and any permission from my family.”
Her grandfather did have the Omoro Soshi, but Sternfelt said he had no idea what the volumes were when he showed up in the late 1940s at Harvard, just up the road from his home in Scituate.
“They figured out what they were, and he said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m donating it to you,’ ” she said.
Her grandfather would have done the same with the crown, and she would have sent it back to Okinawa, too, Sternfelt said.
“I think he should be remembered for finding out what the Omoro Soshi was and returning it. He did the right thing,” she said. “If I could return anything to people that is theirs, I would.”
The aging evidence against Sternfelt has not convinced everyone.
Claims that the Sternfelts have concealed the crown since World War II appear far-fetched, said Stephen Urice, an expert on cultural artifacts law and a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Law.
Over the decades, a crown plot involving multiple generations would likely fall apart when somebody slipped up, got caught or admitted to the crime, Urice said.
“It really stretches the imagination that a family could keep a secret for this long,” he said.
Also, it remains unclear why Sternfelt or his family would deny or continue to deny having the crown after turning over the Omoro Soshi, Urice said.
He said the most unlikely theory is a museum cover-up, calling it “utterly inconceivable” that any renowned Boston-area museum would secretly keep the crown, Urice said.
Artifact collections are open to museum staff and shown to the public, so a looted royal crown would quickly come to light, he said.
Instead, it may be time to consider the possibility that the crown was destroyed or lost, Urice said.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, unequivocally denied ever coming in contact with the crown — or Kishaba.
The museum “has never received an inquiry from Mr. Kishaba regarding the Sho family crown,” Media Relations Manager Amelia Kantrovitz wrote in an email. “The object is not in the museum’s collection, nor is there record of it ever being present at the MFA.”
As part of its professional standards, the museum has undertaken a special effort to identify and return artifacts that were looted during World War II, especially by the Nazis in Europe.
From the view of the Okinawan government, the investigation appears to have ground to a halt.
It has been 12 years since it filed a claim with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the royal crown, as well as claims for an ornamental hair pin used by the Ryukyu Kingdom’s high priestess and some other ancient documents lost during the war. The Boston FBI office would not comment on the case; the Sternfelt family claims it has never been questioned.
With no developments, the group of restoration experts with Hokama at the Naha City Museum of History were working to create a duplicate of the remaining sister crown, which is rarely put on display. The museum hopes to use the copy as an exhibit to give Okinawans a closer link to their royal history.
The passing years have only brought frustration that the original will be found.
“While the people of Okinawa long for the return of their lost cultural assets, locating them is like chasing a wild goose,” said a spokesman for the Cultural Heritage Management Office of the prefectural board of education.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.