By defending its recent auction of a pair of contentious Igbo sacred art objects, despite strong objections from representatives of the Nigerian government and intelligentsia, Christie’s proclaims its obvious lack of transparency from the rooftops. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes


Lingering hopes that Christie’s would reconsider its plans to auction a couple of contentious Igbo sacred objects were dashed on Monday, June 29. For not only did the British auction house proceed with the sale of the art objects (called “Alusi” figures) in its Paris salesroom, it even dismissed the protests trailing the auction with the assertion: “All items in this sale fully comply with all applicable legal frameworks.”

The artworks eventually sold for €212,500 (N92,821,168.75) to a buyer on the internet, less than its pre-sale estimated price between €250,000 and €350,000. They were part of the private collection of Jacques Kerchache, an aide to the former French president Jacques Chirac.

Hiding behind time-worn platitudes, which position public auctions as tools for the promotion of transparency and the prevention of trafficking, Christie’s hoped to suppress possible misgivings about the impropriety of its action. Backing this action with the specious claims to the effect that “local agents were trading in items like these” before the Nigerian civil war and that there was no evidence that the artefacts “were taken away from their place of origin by someone who was not from the place” shows the length the auction house would go just to whitewash its intentions and come out of the last Monday’s sales smelling of roses.

Thus, the auction house could easily reject calls for the suspension of the sale of the controversial works – led by the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and two US-based Nigerian academics, Prof. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Prof. Chika Okeke-Agulu from Princeton University – with no pang of conscience and the illusion of complying with the dead “letter” of the law.

Nonetheless, its real intention peers out through the holes of the tattered raiment of its defence and is visible through the tears. Unimpressed, Professor Okeke-Agulu alluded to this defence as “nonsensical” and “a meaningless diversionary tactic”.
“I do not take lessons about the history of African art from an auction house,” he said in a statement made available to THISDAY. “The simple fact of the matter is that the two ‘alusi’ figures they sold on Monday were collected by Jacques Kerchache in 1968-69. This is the information Christie’s and museums that have similar works have published for so many years. It is only now when I made them realise that in 1968-69 there was a war going on in Nigeria, that they have now made the even more ridiculous claim to the effect that they do not know whether Kerchache acquired the work in 1968 or 1983.”

Obviously, the British auction house has become entangled in a web of its contradictory statements. For if indeed it had any doubt about the provenance of the sacred figures, its auction website did not say so. Hence, Prof. Okeke-Agulu disclosed: “Christie’s in its auction website initially stated that Kerchache acquired the figures ‘in situ’ in 1968-69, and when I raised a question about that, they tried to redefine the meaning of in situ; then they said they used a confusing term to describe the provenance of the figures, and then now say they are uncertain about where and when Kerchache acquired the figures. Suddenly, the great Christie’s Inc. cannot tell a straight lie.”

Also, Christie’s unapologetic sale of the controversial objects is nothing short of what Professor Ogbechie had earlier described as “aiding and abetting collectors in selling pieces of their contested collections.”
The renowned art historian had in his blog accused the “auction houses” of “basically serving as fences for stolen goods” by their actions, which he likened to “blatant criminality.”

Meanwhile, there have been obvious attempts by apologists to gloss over the plundering of these objects with the argument that Africans once discarded, sold or gave them away for various reasons. Indeed, these were the claims made by a Nnamdi Azikiwe University-based art historian Professor Clifford Nwanna to the BBC, while also calling for more information on the controversial objects. He also alluded to the activities of Christian missionaries in the area as an additional reason. “Some people were persuaded to do away with their gods, idols and those statues,” he was quoted as saying.

But, Okeke-Agulu dismissed Nwanna’s main argument – which could be weaponised by the plunderers of these art objects – as “irrelevant to the specific question of the looting that happened during the war” and asked: “How many towns in the what is today’s Anambra State (the area with the style of sculptures valued by European collectors) do stories of stealing of statues from communal shrines not exist?”

Christie’s strangely seemed to be arguing along these lines when it contended that there was no evidence to suggest that the figures weren’t looted “from their place of origin by someone who was not from the place”. In his counterargument, Okeke-Agulu said: “So, what Christie’s is saying, let’s be clear, is that so long as they believe that the statues were not looted or stolen from the communities that owned them by Europeans that it is legal for Europeans to sell them. Remind me again what the law says about buying and selling stolen property; property that the Nigerian government by the way says were illegally exported from Nigeria.”

On what the law says, Babatunde Adebiyi, NCMM’s legal adviser, told THISDAY: “The Igbo statuettes, the couple, as they are now often described, probably left during a period of conflict in Nigeria, this was between 1967 to 1970. The Hague Convention of 1954 seeks for the return to the nations of origin of arts and antiquities taken away during wars and conflicts. Long and short of this is that Christie’s ought not to be dealing in Nigerian antiquities that were probably taken out at a time of conflict contrary to the Hague Convention of 1954.”

The 1954 Hague Convention, which Nigeria joined in 1961, was adopted to protect cultural property in the event of armed conflict. In 1953, a year before the adoption of the convention, an antiquities ordinance, which made the trade of stolen cultural artefacts illegal, was already in place in Nigeria. In addition to these, there was the 1970 UNESCO convention, which also banned the international trade in stolen artefacts.

On June 17, the NCMM had written a letter to Christie’s, requesting the suspension of the planned auction of the Nigerian antiquities until the issue of provenance was resolved. But Adebiyi said that “Christie’s did not reply until 4.43 pm when all offices had closed on Friday the 27th for an auction that will happen on Monday the 29th. And the reply was to say they had established provenance, giving us no time to address the issue. The set of rules applied by them unjustifiably favours them.”

Meanwhile, not long before this auction, a report by the British newspaper The Guardian disclosed that the auction house had “quietly withdrawn four Greek and Roman antiquities from” an auction that ended on Tuesday, June 16, “amid allegations that they had been looted from illicit excavations.”

According to the report, a Greek-born professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Aarhus, Denmark, Christos Tsirogiannis, had indicted “leading auction houses and dealers” for “repeatedly failing to make adequate checks with the authorities about whether certain antiquities were taken illegally from their country of origin.”

Professor Tsirogiannis had noted that several pieces removed from the auction house’s online catalogue were believed to have come from antique dealers. The lots, which included a Roman marble hare, a bronze Roman eagle and two Attic vases, were works dating back to ancient Rome and Greece and were intended to be sold in the auction organised by Christie’s.

“It’s amazing. It’s the same pattern. These companies advertise due diligence and transparency – and in practice, it’s exactly the opposite. As an archaeologist, my first responsibility is to let people know about my research and findings,” The Guardian quoted the former senior field archaeologist at Cambridge University as saying.

Back to the auctioned sacred objects, Adebiyi pointed out the fact they were sold well below their estimated sales prices. “This will always happen whenever there is an uproar,” he said. “Note also that to the African mind, antiquities are not to be sold.”

Promising that subsequent sales of Nigerian artefacts by Christie’s and other auction houses will be met with similar objections, he advised both private and public collectors in the West to register the objects in their possession and seek Nigeria’s confirmation of their genuineness. Thus, few tears would be shed, he added even as he decried “the brazen and unfeeling nature of the auction house about the rights of others”, which he described as “truly saddening”.

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