Let Others Loot For You: Looting Of African Artefacts For Western Museums
“The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted. These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location. But so long as there is demand from the international art market these objects will be looted and offered for sale.”ICOM RED LIST
A famous American museum director, from a very well-known museum in New York, once wrote that he could not identify an image inserted in one of my articles (a Nok sculpture) because his museum did not have such a piece from that culture. (1) The underlying argument, of course, is that African artefacts achieve recognizable status and importance only when they are in Western museums, whether looted or legally acquired. Most Western museums, however, have not hesitated to acquire a considerable number of African terra cotta. This appears to be the case of the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, which is now at the centre of a big dispute about the legality of its acquisitions of African terra cotta.
In an article published in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, (2) Eric Huysecom, an archaeology professor at Geneva and Bamako, has condemned the continuing looting of African cultural heritage, directing attention, in particular to a current exhibition entitled “African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage”, organized by the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, which is well-known for its collection of African, Asian, Oceanic and Pre-Colombian arts. (3) The protest article was also signed by Hamady Bocoum, Director, Cultural Heritage Department, Senegal, Oumarou Ide, Ministry of Culture, Niger, as well as many other experts from Europe and Africa.
As usual those accused of participation in the continued depletion of African cultural artefacts resort to all kinds of weak and dubious arguments, such as that they acquired the artefacts before their country ratified or implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). and that law is not retroactive. Although Switzerland ratified the Convention in 2003, the Swiss law implementing the Convention came into effect only in 2005. According to organisers of the exhibition, most of the 200 artefacts were collected between 1970 and 1988. As Prof. Huysecom stated, the terra cotta must have been illegally exported from Mali. They come from sites discovered after 1977 and appeared on the market in 1979. Mali's decree banning exports of such artefacts dates from 1973 and it is extremely rare to come across such objects accidentally.
With all due respect to the organizers, they know that Mali had issued a decree banning exports of terra cotta in 1973. Nigeria, Ghana, and Niger have similar regulations. But even in the absence of such laws, collectors have known or should have known that since the 1970 UNESCO Convention export of cultural artefacts are subject to controls in the country of origin. They cannot now pretend to be ignorant about the illegality and the immorality of their actions. They just do not care. They simply disregard the fact that ICOM has put the terra cotta and other artefacts from Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire on its Red List.(4) The initiative of Professor Husycom should be supported by all who care for the preservation of cultural heritage in general and the African cultural heritage in particular. It is often alleged that Africans do not have any concrete evidence of their cultural and historic past and yet what we have is being looted, with the aiding and abetting of those who pretend to admire our culture and the complicity of some Africans.
The Director of the Ethnography Museum, Geneva, Boris Wastiau, who is also criticised for helping to put together the catalogue of the exhibition and thus lending the exhibits a veneer of legality and legitimacy, is reported to have said that he sees museums as temporary holders of their collections. One can only answer that so far no Western museum has considered itself as a temporary holder of the thousands of stolen or looted objects in their museums. On the contrary, they have been writing books and articles to justify their continued detention of looted cultural objects from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. (5)
The catalogue of the exhibition is described at the homepage of Barbier Mueller as follows: “The fruit of extensive research, the exhibition catalogue is a reference work resulting from the intensive collaboration between 24 specialists of the African continent. This 470-page work was jointly supervised by Floriane Morin (Curator at the Barbier-Mueller Museum) and Boris Wastiau (Director of the GEM, Geneva) and examines a wealth of over 200 works richly illustrated with old and new field documents. Published by the Barbier-Mueller Museum and Somogy Editions d'Art, it is available in French and English at CHF 90 or € 59.”
The catalogue is indeed a very impressive and well organized document of very high standard as one would expect but this document raises questions concerning the handling of looted artefacts. Collaboration with owners of looted/stolen artefacts raises the issue how far scholars should treat artefacts they know or should know must have been looted or otherwise illegally acquired. In the recent book by James Cuno Whose Culture? (2009) this question was raised again by David I. Owen in his contribution entitled “Censoring Knowledge: The Case for the Publication of Unprovenanced Cuneiform Tablets”. The writer criticises the policy of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and its journal, American Journal of Archaeology for not publishing unprovenanced cuneiform records and argues that by not publishing such records because of their lack of provenance, we lose a lot of information. The ban on publication and even reference to such texts in print or in conferences constitutes, in his view, censorship of knowledge.
One does not have to be a specialist to realize that the policy of the AIA is sound and follows logically from supporting the aims of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Once a decision is taken not to support the illicit trade in artefacts, one must ensure that one does not, directly or indirectly, through other activities support illicit trade. Hence it is logical to adopt a policy not to mention in publications or at conferences artefacts acquired illegally. It would also seem not right to contribute to a catalogue of an exhibition of illegally acquired objects unless the objective pursued is to mention the illegality of the acquisitions.
It is also obvious that a great part of the enjoyment in possessing or seeing a cultural object is the possibility or ability to share with others the excitement. If we cannot show to others or share with them an object, our interest would be considerably reduced. We do not normally obtain cultural objects in order to hide them. Thus a policy which hinders us from showing or talking about cultural objects ultimately diminishes our interest in securing that object. If it is our methods of acquisition which are thus disapproved, we would finally abandon them and seek other ways. No museum could survive for long if it could not show its objects. If the methods of acquisition of certain objects is illegal, then the most sensible policy would be for all law abiding persons not to have anything to do with such objects and definitely not act in anyway that would enhance the value of the object otherwise we risk becoming part of the illicit traffic.
In support of the archaeologists criticising the Barbier Mueller exhibition, Prof. Sylvester Ogbechie has pointed out that “the lavishly published exhibition catalogs that celebrate these collections are complicit, since they serve to present stolen objects as viable objects of discourse, which then allows them to be auctioned for very high prices.”(6)
Prof.Ogbechie draws an interesting parallel between hording looted artefacts and depositing stolen State funds in Swiss accounts: “There is a direct correlation between the activities the Barbier-Mueller museum is accused of and those of Swiss banks. Both institutions operate on the principle of finder's keeper's, which means they are happy to acquire artworks and funds of dubious origin and protect the offenders by imposing a wall of secrecy. It is true that African countries have been complicit in these crimes, and that the more progressive minded African governments lack the power or clout to compel these institutions to reveal their acquisition processes.” Ogbechie ends his thought-provoking article with the conclusion that:
“In time, we must begin to indict the scholars who give discursive legitimacy to these stolen objects, as well as the museums and art collectors who collect them.”
Now that a group of experts have identified the presence of looted African terra cotta in the exhibition, African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage”,(7) one would expect the organizers to examine with experts the incriminated artefacts with a view to returning them to the countries concerned if they have in fact been looted from the African countries. It is indicated that many of the 197 objects in the catalogue, are looted objects and that many are proscribed by the ICOM Red List. It will also be expected that the African States concerned which have diplomatic representatives in Berne and in Geneva will address official requests both to the Barbier-Mueller Museum and to the Swiss Government for the restitution of the incriminated objects. We should also mention that UNESCO has a body, Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation, which offers its good services in solving disputes relating to ownership of cultural property.(8) We expect the countries concerned to involve UNESCO in this matter since the Committee is already dealing with the request of Tanzania for the return of a ritual Makonde mask stolen from the National Museum of Tanzania and now held by Musée-Barbier Mueller.(9)
Many museum directors, art dealers and auction houses in the West seem to have nothing but contempt and disdain for rules and regulations, especially international rules, intended to control illicit traffic in artefacts which they perceive as attempts to limit their right to acquire artefacts by any means. No wonder that in the last few years that many have been involved in scandals and criminal cases which do not reflect on their standing. Still there are museum directors and others who have more sympathy for looters than for legislators who seek to control the illicit market.
All who have studied the problem of looting of African artefacts have concluded that unless the West limits its demand for African artefacts, there is no way this traffic can be controlled. They add however that there is a lot that the African States themselves could also do if they are seriously concerned by the systematic depletion of their cultural heritage.
The looting of African cultural artefacts for the West which reached its levels of climax in the invasion of Magdala, Ethiopia (1868), Kumasi, Ghana (1874), and Benin, Nigeria (1879) still continues in our time, albeit with different methods and persons but with devastating effects on the cultural heritage of the African countries. (10) Will there ever be an end to this plague?
Kwame Opoku, 21 May, 2009
1. Kwame Opoku, “Does the Demand for the Restitution of Stolen African Cultural Objects Constitute an Obstacle to the Dissemination of Knowledge about African Arts? Comments on a Letter from Philippe de Montebello, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York”, http://www.museum-security.org
What Philippe de Montebello insinuated has been clearly and directly stated by Barbier-Mueller: “We Westerners are the ones who confer the quality of art to these objects. These statues should not return to Africa.” Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. See, Kwame Opoku “Is Africa Closer to Oceania than to Europe? Visit to an Exhibition of African and Oceanian Arts”. http://www.modernghana.com A similar view has also been expressed by the authors of the preface to the catalogue, Benin - Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria (2007) when they write about “changes in the attribution of meaning and value” and “continuation of shifts in meaning”.p.17.
2. Eric Huysecom, Le pillage d http://www.modernghana.com/news/176041/1/is-africa-closer-to-oceania-than-to-europe-visit-t.htmle l'histoire africaine, http://www.letemps.COM
4. Annex; see also http://www.modernghana.com, Looting Africa, TIME.com July 30, 2001 Vol. 158 No.
Kléna Sanogo Looting of Cultural Material in Mali
5. See Kwame Opoku, “Whose Universal museum?” Comments on James Cuno's Whose Culture? http://www.modernghana.com
6. Sylvester Ogbechie, “Geneva Row over African Cultural Heritage”
7. African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage (2009)' Collections du musée Barbier-Mueller 469 pages, 175 plates, published in French and English.
8. African States have not made great use of the committee that was set up in 1978 by resolution 20 C4/7.6/5 at the 20th Session of the UNESCO General Conference largely at their instigation. The committee provides a framework for negotiating the return of the cultural objects stolen during the colonial days as well as those looted in post-colonial times. The current report of the committee
at its 15th session is a mine of interesting information on restitution. http://portal.unesco.org/culture
9. It appears Barbier Mueller has accepted Tanzanian claim of ownership of the Makonde mask which was stolen from the National Museum of Tanzania, Dar-es Salaam, but is still unwilling to return it unconditionally. Barbier Mueller proposed to retain ownership of the mask and send it to Tanzania on “permanent loan”, something which of course the Tanzanians have rejected. It seems the movement of history towards justice and fairness is not perceptible everywhere.
10. Kwame Opoku, “Nefertiti, Idia and Other African Icons in European Museums: The Thin Edge of European Morality”,
The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted. These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location. But so long as there is demand from the international art market these objects will be looted and offered for sale.
In response of this urgent situation, a list of categories of African archaeological objects particularly at risk from looting was drawn up at the Workshop on the Protection of the African Cultural Heritage held in Amsterdam from 22 to 24 October 1997. Organised by ICOM (International Council of Museums), within the framework of its AFRICOM programme, it brought together professionals from African, European and North American museums to set up a common policy for fighting against the illicit traffic in African cultural property, and to promote regional and international agreements.
The Red List includes the following categories of archaeological items:
• Nok terracotta from the Bauchi Plateau and the Katsina and Sokoto regions (Nigeria)
• Terracotta and bronzes from Ife (Nigeria)
• Esie stone statues (Nigeria)
• Terracotta statuettes, bronzes, potteries, and stone statues from the Bura System (Niger, Burkina Faso)
• Stone statues from the North of Burkina Faso and neighbouring regions
• Terracotta from the North of Ghana (Komaland) and Côte d'Ivoire
• Terracotta and bronzes so-called Sao (Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria)
These objects are among the cultural goods most affected by looting and theft. They are protected by national legislation, banned from export, and may under no circumstances be put on sale.
An appeal is therefore being made to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors to stop buying them.
This list is of objects which are particularly at risk, but in no way should it be considered exhaustive. The question of the legality of export arises with regard to any archaeological item.
ICOM and the Protection of Heritage
ICOM is an international and non-profit organisation dedicated to the development and advancement of museums and the museum profession. Founded in 1946, ICOM counts 15,000 members, providing a world-wide communications network for museum professionals of all disciplines and specialities. It is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in formal association with UNESCO, and has been granted advisory status by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Its Paris-based (UNESCO House) Secretariat and Museum Information Centre ensure the day-to-day running of the organisation and the co-ordination of its activities and programmes.
The fight against illicit traffic of cultural property is a priority for ICOM. Museums must be at the forefront of this fight by ensuring that they have a scrupulous acquisitions policy which conforms to the ICOM Code of Professional Ethics.
In Africa, in the framework of AFRICOM (the ICOM programme for Africa), a number of concrete initiatives have been launched to stem looting and thefts. Regional workshops have been organised to reinforce co-operation between museums, police and customs. The improvement of inventory procedures with the finalisation of the Handbook of standards. Documenting African collections has been an essential tool for protecting museum collections. The proper circulation of information on stolen works through the publication of One Hundred Missing Objects. Looting in Africa has raised the awareness of professionals and public alike, and has been a factor in the recovery of items. In October 1997, a new stage was reached in Amsterdam where African, European and North-American professionals rallied in favour of the protection of African cultural heritage. As part of the development of a joint policy to combat trafficking of African cultural objects, recommendations were formulated in the fields of North/South collaboration, training, awareness-raising and research. A Red List of particularly endangered archaeological objects was drawn up.
Since October 1999, AFRICOM has become the International Council of African Museums, an autonomous pan-African organisation for museums, with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.
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