They are selling records of African history

affrican sculptor

affrican sculptor

Kwame Opoku

The auction house Dorotheum in Vienna has issued a catalogue announcing a forthcoming auction of cultural artefacts from Africa, Asia and Oceania on 26 May 2015.[1] Among the many African items to be sold are pieces of Nok (Nigeria), Komaland (Ghana) and many other interesting pieces. The impressive array of African artefacts once again confirms the accepted fact that Europe has more valuable African artefacts, mostly looted, than Africa itself. Very few museums in Abidjan, Abuja, Accra, Cape Town, Lagos Luanda or Maputo could assemble such a collection.

As with previous auction sales announced by Dorotheum, the provenance of most of the announced items leaves a lot to be desired. The objects are mostly said to be from “private collection in Austria”, “Belgian private ownership” or “private German collection”. Such descriptions do not help in tracing the history of these artefacts to the date of offer for auction. Several items are said to be from the private collection of the late Dr. Ludwig Leopold who was involved in many cases of restitution of Nazi-looted artworks. [2] We were very surprised that in the case of one object offered for auction, it is stated that the object was purchased and that the relevant receipt is available for inspection. [3] The auctioneers must be encouraged to offer such information and more precise details.

As many readers will know by now, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has put certain African artefacts on its Red List for Africa. [4] These artefacts are said to be so important for understanding African civilizations and history that they should under no circumstances be exported outside their countries of origin or be put on sale:

“The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted. These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location. But so long as there is demand from the international art market these objects will be looted and offered for sale.”

Terracotta from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (Komaland), Mali, Niger and Nigeria (Nok) are all on the Red List (See the Annex).

Some readers may be surprised that the historical evidence of the ancient culture of a continent is being put for sale on the open market in Europe. Many European dealers do not seem to have a conscience that it is wrong to sell the looted artefacts of others. Nor have the European governments been always very active in preventing looting or selling of the cultural artefacts of others. Indeed in the past the European rulers were the prime movers of looting expeditions such as the so-called Benin Punitive Expedition. Recent acts of violent destruction of cultural objects have awakened some people and governments to discuss ways and means of preventing such acts. But has this led to serious reflection and conclusion that you cannot deal effectively with present acts of barbarism if past acts of similar nature are not also condemned? Should the rapacious past be allowed to cast its evil shadow on the barbaric present without any counter-measures?

But if Westerners are not worried by the sale of historical evidence of ancient African civilizations, what about Africans? Those responsible for the preservation of cultural artefacts in countries like Nigeria and Ghana do not seem to be overly worried. They do not seem to express themselves publicly on such issues outside their own circles.

Readers may recall the so-called Geneva row where Swiss scholars openly criticised the exhibition of looted African terracotta which included many items on the ICOM Red List.[5] As far as I can recall neither the [url=file://localhost/G/www.ghanaculture.gov.gh/]Ghana National Commission on Culture[/url] nor the [url=file://localhost/G/www.ncmm.gov.ng]Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments[/url] publicly took any stand on the issue. They all seemed to be involved more in quiet diplomacy, if at all concerned. The general public seems to be entirely excluded from being informed of the outcome of such diplomacy. In Nigeria, people are being misled by information that the policy of quiet diplomacy has resulted in several restitutions when in fact what has happened is the return of items seized by the customs and the police of some western States in the normal course of their duties. None of the famous and well-known Benin bronzes has been returned as a result of diplomacy, quiet or loud. [6]

It is interesting to note that while the Westerners are shouting from rooftops their determination not to return our looted artefacts, African representatives seem to be whispering in the living room their desire to have the looted objects back. Have those in charge of preserving African cultural artefacts tacitly accepted the robbery and sale of our national treasures? There seems to be friendly relationships between Africans in charge of cultural artefacts and their counterparts in the Western countries. But who benefits more from this relationship? [7]

Readers will recall the acrimonious controversies between the Nigerian Association of Archaeologists and the researchers from the University of Frankfurt, Germany, that had been permitted to excavate at the Nok sites. The Nigerians accused the Germans of taking away Nok pieces to Germany and the latter responded that the pieces were taken away for further study. The subsequent exhibition of newly discovered Nok sculptures in Germany rather than in Nigeria shocked many observers. The National Commission on Museums and Monuments did not come out of this controversy with a flattering image. [8]

The lack of interest by many African States in reclaiming their looted artefacts has been explained by a former director of Museum of Ethnology, Stockholm with reference to Nigeria as follows:

“There are many ways to develop relationships besides returning museum objects. Informally, it also appears that different kinds of collaboration that are currently in progress are more important to Nigerian museums. That might explain why Nigeria has not registered any formal demand for the return of the Benin collections, but has preferred to engage in dialogue and cooperation with museums that have Benin collections. It seems Nigeria is chary of bringing the matter to a head. How does one otherwise explain that the National Museum of Nigeria was willing to lend its extensive and unique collection of Ife art to the British Museum for a special exhibition 2010,without demanding reciprocity?” [9]

As far as I can tell, there have not been any comments on the above statement by Prof. Wilhelm Ostberg, former Director of the National Museum of Ethnology, Stockholm, who undoubtedly knew what he was talking about. Does the cover of silent diplomacy also extend to sales of evidence of African history as described by the ICOM Red List of Africa?

The continued looting and selling of historical artefacts of African cultures without any comment or reaction by guardians of African culture can only encourage further forays.

NOTES
1. Dorotheum,Stammeskunst/TribalArt,Afrika,Nordafrika&Orient,Asien, Indonesien, Ozeanien, Sudamerika. Dienstag, 26 Mai 2015. See alsowww.dorotheum.com“Auction of African Art by Dorotheum, Vienna: But What Are the Provenances of the Artefacts?www.modernghana.com/…/auction-of-african-art-by-dorotheum-vienna

2. Story – Lootedart.com www.lootedart.com/news.php?r Illicit Cultural Property | Tag Archive | Egon Schiele, illicitculturalproperty.com/tag/egon-schiele

3. Catalogue, p. 93, Songye, DRKongo, “Kifwebe-Maske.”

4. Red List of African Archaeological Objects- Red List – ICOM

5. K. Opoku, Let Others Loot for You: Looting of African Artefacts for Western Museums. www.modernghana.com/…/let-others-loot-for-you-looting-of-african-art…

6. K. Opoku, What we understand by “Restitution”www.modernghana.com/news/…/what-we-understand-by-restitution.html

K. Opoku, The Man of Conscience who Returned his Grandfather’s Looted Benin Bronzes www.modernghana.com/…/man-with-conscience-returned-his-grandfath

7. K. Opoku, “Will Nigeria Finally Raise Restitution of Benin Artefacts at Unesco Intergovernmental Committee?” www.modernghana.com/…/will-nigeria-finally-raise-restitution-of-benin-Queen-Mother Idia and Others Must Return Home: Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted Treasures…www.modernghana.com/…/queen-mother-idia-and-others-must-return-h

K. Opoku – “Benin Plan of Action for Restitution . www.museum-security.org/…/kwame-opoku-benin-plan-of-action-for-re .8. K. Opoku, “Newly Discovered Nok Sculptures Exhibited for the First Time not in Nigeria but in Germany” www.modernghana.com/…/newly-discovered-nok-s

Pambazuka, Nigerian archaeologists protest German exhibition of looted …www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/…/print

9. Wilhelm Ostberg, The Coveted Treasures of the Kingdom of Benin”, p.68, Whose Objects, catalogue of exhibition at the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, 2010, Etnografiska museet (Museum of Ethnography) ANNEX Extract from Red List of African Archaeological Objects- Red ICOM