After a Paris auction house defied his requests and those of Nigerian authorities to halt the sale of artifacts over questions of provenance, a scholar says he’ll push harder for repatriating cultural treasures.
“For those who think the story is over, it’s not. We are just beginning,” said Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Princeton University professor of African and American diaspora art, whose Twitter petition for #BlackArtsMatter has drawn thousands of supporters.
Okeke-Agulu’s comments followed Christie’s June 29 auction, which included the sale of Nigerian artifacts, including two Igbo sacred statues. The pair sold to an anonymous buyer for $239,000, Christie’s reported.
“The pressure is on not just Christie’s but collectors and collections all over the world that have these objects – from Benin, from Igbo area, from Ashanti," Okeke-Agulu told Voice of America in an interview.
His vow to press for returning artifacts taken from what is now Nigeria mingles with other calls to hand back African items that may have been illegally seized amid colonialism and conflict.
In mid-June, five activists dislodged a funeral pole at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, demanding its return to Africa. The activists face trial in September. Such demands have echoes that are both global and longstanding. Greece, for example, has fought for two centuries to reclaim the ancient Elgin marbles from Britain.
Nigeria “was saddened” by the Christie’s sale, the lawyer representing the country’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments told the BBC. Babatunde Adebiyi had written to the auction house June 17 seeking to suspend the sale of Nigerian items so their provenance could be scrutinized.
Christie’s, in a statement to The Associated Press, said the items were legitimately acquired and “lawfully sold.” While the auction house acknowledged the “nuanced and complex debates around cultural property,” it said such sales hinder black market dealings.
Its auction offered pendants, masks and statues from Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Gabon, Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the carved wooden statues – a male and a female – caught Okeke-Agulu’s attention.
In the Igbo language of eastern Nigeria, they are called “alosi,” sacred sculptures representing spiritual forces or deities.
“They would have originally been installed in communal shrines where sacrifices and offerings are made to the deities that they represent,” said Okeke-Agulu, who is ethnic Igbo. The two statues’ arms extend forward, palms up, which he said would be for receiving ritual foods or other substances.
While it wasn’t publicly known where the alosi would go now, Okeke-Agulu said it was clear they came from eastern Nigeria’s Igboland.
The professor said there is a well-documented history of profiteering during the country’s civil war in the late 1960s.
“European dealers, mostly waiting at the Cameroonian side of the border,” hired locals to steal and smuggle objects that eventually wound up in public and private collections, he said.
Such trade violated Nigeria’s 1953 Antiquities Ordinance and a 1954 UNESCO convention protecting cultural property during armed conflict, Okeke-Agulu said.
A pledge to repatriate
Today, museums in France hold tens of thousands of objects from Africa, including many from its former colonies. The Musée du Quai Branly alone houses 70,000 African items.
During a 2017 speech in Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to make the return of African artifacts “a top priority,” according to The New York Times. That pledge has not yet been fulfilled because new legislation may be needed to allow the objects’ release from government custody, French public radio RFI has reported.
Okeke-Agulu contends that Nigeria's government needs to do more to halt the trade in stolen goods and reckon with “the sordid histories of collecting” during and after the colonial period.
“There are legal instruments that can be applied to stopping the sale of illegal, illegally exported cultural property,” he said, adding that he expects Nigerian authorities “to pursue these objects much more robustly than they have done up until now.”
Nigeria's diplomatic approach
Aliyu L. Abdu, who directs Nigeria’s museums commission, told VOA in an email that its members appreciate “the strong protests expressed by concerned citizens such as Professor Chika Okeke to assert his cultural right as a member of a community whose cultural integrity and sensitivity (have) been violated by commercial interest.”
But, he wrote, the government entity is “taking a more comprehensive approach,” using diplomatic and institutional channels for recovering Nigeria’s “cultural patrimony.”
Abdu cited the Benin Dialogue Group as an example. The initiative aims to establish a museum in southern Nigeria’s Edo state capital, Benin City, that would reunite looted artworks now scattered around the globe. Representatives from Nigeria, including from the commission, are collaborating with museum directors and delegates from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
The group has “started the moves to identify and inventory thousands of Nigerian artifacts in European museums for repatriation through an agreeably mutual process,” Abdu wrote. “However, that angle does not substitute prompt reaction towards recovery of our stolen artifacts that has come to light. As long as Nigeria has noted, recorded and tracked the movements of objects exposed through Christie's auction, the matter can no longer be denied or suppressed, so we shall continue our efforts of recovery through all available means, which happily are becoming more available.”
Examining ethics of collecting
Okeke-Agulu also has called on public museums that own looted African objects to come clean about where the objects came from and how they were obtained.
American museums, like their European counterparts, are grappling with repatriation.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, wary of the provenance of some African items it received in a bequest, in 2014 contacted Nigeria’s museums commission.
“When the commission confirmed that export documents had been forged, the MFA returned the (eight) works in question,” ARTnews magazine reported last summer.
The same story noted that Maryland’s Baltimore Museum of Art – with more than 2,500 African works, including ancient sculptures and modern paintings – was creating a Cultural Property Working Group to assess the museum’s collection policies. The group had hoped to complete its recommendations by late this year, but it has been delayed by the pandemic, the museum told VOA in an email.
In Okeke-Agula’s opinion, “negotiation about the status and ownership of these objects ought to begin sooner rather than later, and until there is a lot of pressure put on the institutions or the private collections that have them, they’re not going to do anything.”
“It’s not a sprint,” he said of his campaign. “What I want to be associated with is a long journey, and as I said, we’re only beginning.”
VOA Africa Division’s Jason Patinkin and Carol Guensburg reported from Washington, with additional reporting by Catherine Field in Paris.