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Contested African artifacts sold at auction

“These works are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children,” wrote Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of art history in Princeton, in a passionate Instagram post three weeks ago, asking to stop selling two wooden statues made by the Igbo people of Nigeria. Okeke-Agulu believes that the objects were looted in the late 1960s during the country’s brutal civil war.

But the auction went on Monday at Christie’s in Paris. Life-size male and female figures, described by Christie as “among the greatest African art sculptures”, sold to an online bidder for € 212,500 with commissions, approximately $ 238,000. The price was well below the pre-sale estimate from € 250,000 to € 350,000.

The sculptures come from southeastern Nigeria, a region devastated by one of the bloodiest civil strife of the late twentieth century. Biafra’s unsuccessful three-year struggle to gain independence, which ended in 1970, resulted in the death of over a million people, most of whom starved to death.

Mr. 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 the many artifacts stolen by intermediaries at the behest of traders and European and American collectors, such as the famous French collector Jacques Kerchache.

Christie is called Mr. Kerchache, who was instrumental in the foundation of the Quai Branly Museum, which exhibits artifacts from the former French colonies, as a former owner of these sculptures. The auction house claimed that the collector bought them from an African trader in 1968 or 1969, in Cameroon or Paris, before they were subsequently acquired by another private collector, who was the seller on Monday.

In a pre-auction statement, Christie replied to Mr. Okeke-Agulu’s Instagram post, stating that the sale of the statues was legitimate and lawful. “There is no evidence that these statues were removed from their original location by someone who was not local in the area,” said the statement, adding that Mr. Kerchache never went to Nigeria in 1968 or 1969 and that Christie’s he had worked to reassure all inquiries regarding the origin and legitimacy of the sale.

The voice of Okeke-Agulu is one of many that ask for the repatriation of African works of art in European and American collections which are believed to have been acquired through colonial exploitation or illegal looting.

In November 2018, a report commissioned by the President of France Emmanuel Macron recommended it French museums permanently repatriate works of art removed from Africa without consent, if their countries of origin ask for their return. Macron later announced that 26 pieces looted by French forces would be returned by the Quai Branly Museum. They remain in France, however, pending the construction of a suitable host museum in Benin.

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

In London, several “Bronzes of Benin” celebrated metal reliefs taken by British soldiers in 1897, it remains in the British Museum with no plans for their return.

The circumstances of the removal of Christie’s Igbo figures from Nigeria, however, are more obscure.

Bernard de Grunne, the Brussels-based merchant who sold the sculptures in 2010 to the Christie’s seller, wrote in an email that “We cannot link them to the chaos caused by the Biafran war, as we don’t know when exactly they arrived outside Nigeria. They could have come out at any time between 1968 and 1983. “

“It can also be argued that these great works of art were saved to be admired by the world at that point, instead of being burnt and destroyed during the war,” he added.

But Mr. Okeke-Agulu remains convinced that the sculptures were looted in the conflict. “There is some lasting anxiety about anything to do with Biafra because of the unspeakable horror of that war,” said Okeke-Agulu in an interview before the sale. “With the return cases of World War II, they were works of art taken by Europeans from Europeans. When it comes to Africa, because Africa doesn’t matter, it’s as usual. This cannot continue to be the case. “

Okeke-Agulu also cited the work of another scholar, Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. In his 2007 book, Littlefield Kasfir showed that during the Biafran war, “substantial looting of sanctuaries took place by the fighters and many objects were moved by intermediaries across the border into Cameroon, from where they were purchased by traders and shipped to Europe as raw materials in the art market “.

In 1970, a group of Cameroonian merchants were arrested by the Nigerian police and confiscated a warehouse of Igbo artifacts. Nigeria made trade in stolen artifacts illegal in 1953 with the passing of its Antiquities Ordinance Act.

The Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Nigerian National Museum of Lagos did not respond to requests for comment on the sale of Christie.

“It’s about questioning the persistence of colonial heritage in the art world. If it’s not said in the most forced way possible, then the problem only falls to the side,” said Okeke-Agulu. “Black Lives Matter has shown that when enough pressure is applied, people are forced to reconsider long-standing positions.”

Théophile Larcher contributed to the report.

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