Stolen African artefacts sell at auction

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“These artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children,” wrote Chika Okeke-Agulu, an Art History professor at Princeton, in an impassioned Instagram post calling for a halt to the sale of two wooden statues made by the Igbo people of Nigeria.

Okeke-Agulu believes the items were looted in the late 1960s during the country’s brutal civil war.

But the auction went ahead on June 29 at Christie’s in Paris. The life-size male and female figures, described by Christie’s as “among the greatest sculptures of African art,” sold to an online bidder for about US$238,000. The price was well below the pre-sale estimate of US$300,000 to US$440,000.

The sculptures originated from southeast Nigeria. Biafra’s unsuccessful three-year struggle to gain independence, which ended in 1970, claimed the lives of more than a million people.

Okeke-Agulu, who grew up in the Biafra war zone, near where the statues were made, said in his Instagram post that Christie’s Igbo figures were among many artefacts stolen by intermediaries at the behest of European and American dealers and collectors, such as the renowned French collector Jacques Kerchache.

Christie’s named Kerchache, who was instrumental in the foundation of the Quai Branly Museum which displays artefacts from France’s former colonies, as a former owner of these sculptures. The auction house said that the collector acquired them from an African dealer in 1968 or 1969, either in Cameroon or Paris, before they were later acquired by another private collector, who was the seller at the auction.

In a statement before the auction, Christie’s responded to Okeke-Agulu’s Instagram post, saying the sale of the statues was legitimate and lawful.

“There is no evidence these statues were removed from their original location by someone who was not local to the area,” the statement said, adding that Kerchache never went to Nigeria in 1968 or 1969 and that Christie's had worked to reassure all enquiries regarding the provenance and legitimacy of the sale.

Okeke-Agulu’s voice is one of many calling for the repatriation of African artworks in European and American collections that are thought to have been acquired through colonial exploitation or illegal looting.

In November 2018, a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron of France recommended that French museums permanently repatriate artowrks removed from Africa without consent, if their countries of origin ask for their return.

President Macron subsequently announced that 26 pieces looted by French forces would be handed back from the Quai Branly Museum. They remain in France, however, awaiting the construction of a suitable host museum in Benin.

Earlier this month, with the repatriation process at a near standstill, a group of protesters stormed the Quai Branly in an unsuccessful attempt to remove an African funeral pole.

In London, several “Benin Bronzes,” celebrated metal reliefs taken by British soldiers in 1897, remain in the British Museum without any plans for their return. – Excerpted from the New York Times

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