Christie’s Paris Sells Two ‘Sacred Sculptures’ From Nigeria, Despite Protests from Scholars and Nigerian Heritage Authorities
The sale of two sacred Nigerian sculptures went ahead at Christie’s Paris showroom yesterday afternoon despite claims that the objects were looted during the African country’s civil war.
Packaged as one lot, the pair of sculptures from the Igbo people of Nigeria was estimated to go for €250,000–€350,000 ($283,000–$396,000) at Christie’s Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique du nord sale. On Monday in the French capital, they fell short of that mark, selling for €212,500 ($239,000) after fees.
Chika Okeke-Agulu, a member of the Igbo tribe and an influential professor of indigenous, modern, and contemporary African and African Diaspora art history Princeton University opposed the sale as soon as it was announced. He argued that Jacques Kerchache, the prominent French collector of African art who owned the pieces, exploited the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s for personal gain.
Kerchache, who died in 2001, has been described as “a Gallic Indiana Jones.” Among other things, he is remembered as the driving force behind the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly, which is dedicated to the arts of Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Okeke-Agulu alleges that the French collector’s acquisition of Nigerian objects should be viewed in the light of the atrocities of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. “Mr Kerchache, went there to buy up my people’s cultural heritage, including the two sculptures you are now offering for sale,” he wrote on Instagram. “These artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children.”
Okeke-Agulu was one of over 3,300 to sign an online petition demanding Christie’s stop the auction. The document framed the issue through the lens of Black Lives Matter movement, using the hashtag #BlackArtsMatter. “We must not forget that it is not just the black body, but also black culture, identity and especially art that is being misappropriated,” it read.
Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments also called on the auction house to pull the sculptures and four other lots from the sale, demanding proof of the objects’ provenance. The Commission alleged that the removal of the items in question may have violated the UNESCO convention of 1954, which protects cultural heritage during armed conflict.
Despite the criticism, Christie’s decided to move forward with the sale. “These objects are being lawfully sold having been publicly exhibited and previously sold over the last decades prior to Christie’s involvement,” a representative from the company told the Associated Press in a statement.
“It is our understanding Mr Kerchache never went to Nigeria in 1968/69 which suggests local agents were involved in initial trading, likely to Cameroon before shipment to Europe,” an unnamed source from the auction house told CNN.
Okeke-Agulu didn’t immediately respond to Artnet’s request for comment. Yesterday, he wrote on Instagram a rhetorical question directed toward Christie’s: “I ask you again, what is your definition of ‘legitimate’ collecting of important art and cultural heritage from a war zone? Or, are you now a Biafran War Denier?”
“I have no problem with the auction business as such,” he continued, “but you cannot twist history, even change terminologies in ‘African art’, just because you want to make dirty money out of cultural heritage from a part of the world you don’t think matters that much. But, just to be clear, my story, these stories of looted Igbo, Nigerian, and African art and cultural heritage will not end with your planned sale of these two alusi figures. This is just the beginning.”
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