Nigeria has demanded that a sale of statues in Paris be terminated and say that they were acquired illegally. Christie’s auction house, which handles the sale, declined the request.
On Monday, June 29, Christies rejected a request from a Nigerian National Commission requesting the cancellation of a sale of statues in Paris which it considers unlawfully acquired during the Biafra War, the auction house which deemed the auction quite legal.
Mallam Abdu Aliyu, Acting Director-General of the Nigeria National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said he wrote a letter of protest to the British company Christie’s after learning about the auction on Monday in Paris.
Requirements for compensation
“We believe the statues were acquired illegally during the civil war” in Biafra (1967-1970), said the Nigerian senior official.
Theophilus Umogbai, curator of the National Museum of Benin City (Nigeria), also protested against “the sale of our stolen works”. “Christie’s and other auction houses (…) have to return these works and pay us compensation,” he said.
“All items in this sale fully comply with all applicable legal frameworks,” the auctioneer replied.
At the heart of the trial are a pair of Igbo statuettes, estimated at between € 250,000 and € 350,000 – eventually € 212,500 was sold to a buyer on the Internet.
According to Christie’s, these items have been “exhibited, been the subject of publications in previous years” (…) and “sold previously and publicly in 2010 at an international fair”.
The statues were part of the private collection of Jacques Chirac’s former primary art adviser, Jacques Kerchache, until his death in 2001, but “there has never been any suggestion that they may have been exposed to illegal imports,” Christies notes.
Among the other controversial items is an Urhobo statue valued between € 600,000 and € 900,000, which did not find any buyers.
According to Christie’s, public sale is a tool to promote openness and prevent traffic.
“We believe that even before the (Biafra) conflict, local agents dealt with objects like these.” “There is no evidence” that these Igbo statuettes “were removed from their place of origin by anyone who was not from the site,” the auction house said again.
These complaints revive the debate on the restoration of African artworks found in European public collections, such as the Musée du Quai Branly, and among private collectors.
If, in this Nigerian case, it is the post-colonial period, for the most part, the complaints refer to works that reached Europe during the colonization. European museums are ready to discuss reproductions when the works have been looted, but dispute that this was the case for the majority of them.