Nigeria has called for the cancellation of a sale of statues in Paris, saying they were acquired illegally. Auction house Christie’s, which handles the sale, denied the request.
Christie’s rejected Monday, June 29, the request of a Nigerian national commission requesting the suspension of a sale of statuettes in Paris which it considers illegally acquired during the war of Biafra, the auction house deeming the auction completely legal.
Mallam Abdu Aliyu, Acting Director General of the National Commission for Nigeria for museums and monuments, said it had written a protest letter to the British company Christie’s after learning of the auction on Monday in Paris.
“We believe that the statuettes were acquired illegally during the civil war” in Biafra (1967-1970), said the senior Nigerian official.
Theophilus Umogbai, curator of the National Museum in Benin City (Nigeria), also protested against “the sale of our stolen works”. “Christie’s and other auction houses (…) must repatriate these works and pay us compensation,” he said.
“All the objects in this sale fully meet all the applicable legal frameworks,” replied the auction company.
At the heart of the litigation is a pair of Igbo statuettes, estimated between 250,000 and 350,000 euros – ultimately sold 212,500 euros to a buyer on the Internet.
According to Christie’s, these objects “have been exhibited, have been the subject of publications in past years” (…) and have “been sold previously and publicly in 2010 at an international fair”.
The statues were part of the private collection of Jacques Chirac’s former advisor on the primary arts, Jacques Kerchache, until his death in 2001, but “there has never been any suggestion that they may have been subject to illegal import, “notes Christie’s.
Among other controversial objects is an Urhobo statue valued between 600,000 and 900,000 euros, which has not found a buyer.
According to Christie’s, public sales are a tool to promote transparency and prevent traffic.
“We believe that even before the (Biafra) conflict, local agents traded in objects like these.” “There is no evidence” that these Igbo statuettes “were removed from their place of origin by someone who was not from the place,” the auction house said.
These complaints revive the debate on the restitution of African works of art found in European public collections, for example at the Musée du Quai Branly, and among private collectors.
If, in this Nigerian case, it is the post-colonial period, most of the time, the complaints relate to works that reached Europe during colonization. European museums are ready to discuss renditions when the works have been forcibly looted, but dispute that this was the case for the majority of them.