Nigeria saddened by sale of ‘looted’ Christie statues

The wooden objects, a man and a woman, represent deities of the Igbo community.Image copyright
© Christie’s Images Ltd, 2020


The wooden objects, a man and a woman, represent deities of the Igbo community.

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Nigeria is “saddened” by the sale of two sculptures belonging to the southeastern Igbo community, said an official with the Nigerian National Commission of Museums and Monuments.

A prominent art historian had asked the famous auction house Christie’s to cancel the sale.

Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu told the BBC that the two objects were “looted” from the sanctuaries during the civil war in the late 1960s.

The items sold for just under $ 240,000 (£ 195,000) in Paris.

Christie’s rejected the claim that the sculptures were stolen, saying Monday’s sale was perfectly legal.

The wooden objects approximately 1,5 meters high, a man and a woman, represent deities of the Igbo community, with their hands up hoping to receive sacrifices and gifts.

Why is the sale so controversial?

At the center of the controversy is when the statues were taken and from where.

“Christie’s should not be dealing with Nigerian antiquities that were probably brought out in a time of conflict, against the 1954 Hague Convention,” said Babatunde Adebiyi, legal adviser to the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments, adding Nigeria was “saddened” by the sale.

The 1954 Hague Convention was adopted to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict. Nigeria joined the convention in 1961.

Prior to this, Nigeria already had an antiquities ordinance law that made the trade in stolen cultural objects illegal, which was adopted in 1953.

The Unesco convention of 1970 also prohibited international trade in stolen objects.

Adebiyi, who also advises the Nigerian government, says he believes these objects will always belong to the Nigerian people.

“There will never be a universal principle that something made by my ancestors belongs to you in perpetuity because you bought it from an auction house. African antiquities will always be African, just as a Da Vinci will always be European.”

Where do the articles come from?

Professor Okeke-Agulu from Princeton University says the objects were looted from communal shrines in his home state of Anambra, with the help of local conspirators.

He said they could not have been legally acquired because they were eliminated during the Biafran civil war in the 1960s, when the Igbo community tried to separate from Nigeria.

“Growing up in Nigeria, we would go through these destroyed and looted sanctuaries and point them out, [saying] ‘These were the sanctuaries that were looted and destroyed during the war,’ “he told the BBC.

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Media captionBiafran’s war explained

The historian believes that the loss of these sculptures has meant that a key part of Igbo’s cultural identity has been lost to future generations.

He accused Christie’s and other art collectors of “expropriation”.

“Pretending that we don’t matter, what we think doesn’t matter, is for me a recast version of the colonial arrogance that we are still dealing with in other parts of the African continent,” said Professor Okeke-Agulu.

Could there be another explanation?

But art historian Professor Clifford Nwanna of Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria says more information is needed.

He says that in the past some local people chose to throw away some ritual objects or sell them.

This sometimes happened when people felt that the object was “no longer powerful” or stopped working as protection.

Professor Nwanna also points to the arrival of Christian missionaries in the area as another historical reason why some local people presented the objects “as things that are of little value.”

“Some people were persuaded to remove their gods, idols, and those statues,” he adds.

He said that the responsibility should rest with the local community to request the return of the items:

“They need to make a claim for the objects … because legally the community is the people who have the greatest interest.”

What does Christie’s say?

He has defended the auction.

“The auction house believes that there is no evidence that these statues were removed from their original location by someone who was not local to the area, or that the area they came from at the time they were acquired was part of the conflict in that moment”. he said in a statement.

“We understand that even before the conflict, local agents traded objects like these and began to circulate more widely,” he said.

He added that at no time “has there been any suggestion that these statues were subject to inappropriate exports.”

How did the sculptures get to Paris?

According to Christie’s, the sculptures were acquired by Jacques Kerchache, a French art collector and close advisor to former French President Jacques Chirac.

But the auction house says it believes Kerchache did not travel to Nigeria in 1968/69, suggesting that local agents were involved in the initial trade, likely to Cameroon before the shipment to Europe.

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A Christie’s spokeswoman said it was unclear whether Kerchache acquired the statues in Cameroon or Paris. The statues remained in Kerchache’s private collection until his death in 2001.

In 2018, France released a report calling for thousands of African artifacts in its museums to be returned to the continent.

While President Emmanuel Macron promised to repatriate African objects, questions remain about how the policy will be implemented.

Calls for the repatriation of African artifacts have grown in recent years, with the #BlackLivesMatter protests rekindling those demands.

An online petition with more than 2,000 signatories had called for the sale of Igbo’s sculptures to be canceled.