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  • The objects were part of the private art collection of French President Jacques Chirac's advisor and art dealer, Jacques Kerchache.

    The objects were part of the private art collection of French President Jacques Chirac's advisor and art dealer, Jacques Kerchache. | Photo: Christie's

Published 29 June 2020
Opinion

At the heart of the controversy is a pair of Igbo statues, estimated between 250,000 and 350,000 euros, and ultimately sold 212,500 euros (US$239,000). 

Auction house Christie's rejected Monday a Nigerian request to suspend a sale in Paris of "museum quality" statues, which Nigerian officials say were illegally acquired during the Biafra war (1967-1970).

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Nigeria's museums' commission Director Mallam Abdu Aliyu, said the commission had written a protest letter to Christie's after they learned about the auction. 

"We believe that the statues were acquired illegally during the civil war," Abdu Aliyu explained.

"For years, we have clamored for the repatriation of these works to no avail. We have been negotiating through dialogue and diplomacy to have these works brought back to their original owners," he told AFP.

The head of the National Museum in Nigeria's Benin City, Theophilus Umogbai, also protested against "the sale of our stolen works." 

"Christie's and other auction houses (...) have to repatriate such works and pay compensation to us in the interest of natural justice," he said. 

In a statement to the Associated Press, the auction house responded that "These objects are being lawfully sold having been publicly exhibited and previously sold over the last decades prior to Christie's involvement."

At the heart of the controversy is a pair of Igbo statues, estimated between 250,000 and 350,000 euros, and ultimately sold 212,500 euros (US$239,000). 

The objects were part of the private art collection of late French President Jacques Chirac's advisor and art dealer, Jacques Kerchache, until he died in 2001. Among the other objects is also an Urhobo statue valued at 900,000 euros (US$1m), which did not find a buyer.

According to Christie's, public sales are a tool for transparency and against traffic. It said there was "verifiable documented provenance" that the objects were taken out of Nigeria before 2000, as the law required.

The auction house said local agents most likely traded the objects before being sold to Kerchache.  

"We believe that this type of statue would not have been sold without the agreement of local chiefs/leaders."

But Abdu Aliyu said Nigeria's museum officials were convinced the objects were stolen.

The controversy revives the debate on the restitution of African and Asian artworks found in European public and private collections. 

The repatriation of these objects looted by Europe's colonial powers has become a hot issue, with several nations demanding the return of their treasures.  

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