“These works of art are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children,” he wrote Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of art history in Princeton, in a passionate Instagram post three weeks ago demanded a stop in sales of two wooden statues made by the Igbo in Nigeria. Prof. Okeke-Agulu believes the items were looted during the country’s brutal civil war in the late 1960s.
However, the auction took place at Christie’s in Paris on Monday. The life-size male and female figures, which Christie describes as “among the largest sculptures in African art”, were sold to an online bidder for a fee of around $ 238,000 for € 212,500. The price was significantly below the pre-sale estimate of 250,000 to 350,000 euros.
The sculptures come from southeastern Nigeria, a region that was destroyed by the late 20th century bloodiest civil conflicts. Biafra’s unsuccessful three-year struggle for independence that ended in 1970 claimed the lives of more than a million people, most of whom died hunger.
Mr. Okeke-Agulu, who grew up in the Biafra war zone near the place where the statues were made, said in his Instagram post that Christie’s Igbo figures are among the many artifacts that European mediators have told us to do and American dealers and collectors were stolen as a renowned French collector Jacques Kerchache.
Christie’s name Mr. Kerchache, who was instrumental in founding the Quai Branly Museum, which displays artifacts from the former colonies of France, as the former owner of these sculptures. The auction house said that the collector bought them from an African dealer in Cameroon or Paris in 1968 or 1969, before they were later 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, saying that the sale of the statues was legitimate and lawful. “There is no evidence that someone outside the area removed these statues from their original location,” the statement said. Mr. Kerchache never went to Nigeria in 1968 or 1969 and Christie’s worked to reassure all inquiries regarding the origin and legitimacy of the sale.
Mr. Okeke-Agulu’s voice is one of many that call for the return of African works of art to European and American collections that are believed to have been acquired through colonial exploitation or illegal looting.
In November 2018, this was recommended in a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron of France French museums permanently repatriate works of art Removed from Africa without consent when their countries of origin request their return. Mr. Macron then announced that 26 pieces looted by French forces would be returned from the Quai Branly Museum. she stay in FranceWaiting for the construction of a suitable guest museum in Benin.
Earlier this month, when the return process almost came to a standstill, a group of demonstrators stormed the Quai Branly in an unsuccessful attempt to remove an African funeral parlor.
Several “Benin Bronzes” metal reliefs were celebrated in London taken by British soldiers Remain in the British Museum in 1897 with no plans to return.
However, the circumstances under which Christie’s Igbo figures were removed from Nigeria are less clear.
Bernard de Grunne, the Brussels-based dealer who sold the sculptures to the seller at Christie’s in 2010, wrote in an email: “We cannot associate them with the chaos caused by the Biafrank war, as we are not sure when they came from Nigeria. They could have come out anytime between 1968 and 1983. “
“Conversely, you can argue that these great works of art were saved for the world to admire, rather than being burned and destroyed during the war,” he added.
But Mr. Okeke-Agulu remains convinced that the sculptures were looted in the conflict. “Because of the indescribable horror of this war, there is some continuing concern about everything related to Biafra,” said Okeke-Agulu in a pre-sale interview. “The restitution cases of World War II were works of art that Europeans had taken over from Europeans. When it comes to Africa, because Africa doesn’t matter, it works as usual. It cannot go on like this. “
Mr. Okeke-Agulu also cited the work of another scholar, Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. In her 2007 bookMs. Littlefield Kasfir showed that during the Biafran War, “the shrines of combatants were looted significantly and many items were brought by middlemen across the border to Cameroon, from where they were bought by merchants and shipped to Europe as art market goods.” ”
In 1970 there was a group of traders from Cameroon stopped by the Nigerian police and a cache of seized Igbo artifacts. Nigeria made the trade in stolen artifacts illegal in 1953 when it passed its Law on the Antiquities Ordinance.
The Nigerian Museums and Monuments Commission and the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos did not respond to requests for comments on Christie’s sale.
“It’s about questioning the continued existence of colonial heritage in the art world. If it isn’t said as violently as possible, the problem simply falls by the wayside,” said Okeke-Agulu. “Black Lives Matter has shown that People are forced to rethink long-held positions if enough pressure is applied. “
Théophile Larcher contributed to the reporting.