Nigerian historians and government officials are trying to stop the auction of several artifacts from the country.
Critics claim the collection includes artworks that were looted during Nigeria’s civil war, as well as other pieces that were taken earlier under British colonial rule.
Christie’s deny that any items in the sale were acquired illegitimately.
Controversy has centered around Lot 47 — a pair of sculptures representing Alusi, deities of the Igbo people, one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria.
The sculptures are expected to raise more than $280,000.
The auction house lists the provenance of the sculptures as the collection of Jacques Kerchache, a leading collector of African art, adviser to the late President of France Jacques Chirac, and an influential figure in the creation of the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
The pieces passed to another private collection after Kerchache’s death in 2001.
According to Christie’s, Kerchache would have received the pieces in either Cameroon or Paris via local dealers.
“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,” said a source inside Christie’s with knowledge of the artifacts in question.
“We have not had provided any additional information or documentation from any parties that questions the legality or legitimacy of the sale of these objects.”
The Christie’s source added that any evidence the artifacts were “acquired improperly” would be assessed.
Proof of origin
The Nigerian government is demanding proof of the sculptures’ origins, and of several other pieces listed in the sale.
The NCMM sent a letter to Christie’s on June 17, seen by CNN, asking the company to remove the sculptures and four other lots from the auction while the agency verifies their provenance.
Adebiyi says the NCMM did not receive a reply to their letter. A representative of Christie’s Paris branch disputes this, claiming “we received this correspondence and replied to try to address these concerns, and to assure that these objects are being lawfully sold.”
Plaques that form part of the Benin Bronzes are displayed at The British Museum. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Professor Okeke-Agulu is dismissive of the auctioneer’s claim that the sculptures were procured ethically.
“I wonder what (Christie’s) so-called well-respected scholars, collectors and dealers showed them as proof that these objects were legally acquired from a war zone,” he told CNN.
“They can twist themselves into all kinds of difficult positions to try to justify the simple fact that they are selling sacred objects that were expropriated from my homeland.”
Nigerian-American art historian Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie of the University of California Santa Barbara has also criticized the auction.
Jacques Kerchache, right, with former French President Jacques Chirac, second right, during the inauguration of a new wing of the Louvre housing objects from the world’s oldest civilizations. Credit: LAURENT REBOURS/AFP/AP POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The status of artifacts from African countries in European museums and auction houses has been under renewed scrutiny in recent months, as some Black Lives Matter protesters have made restitution a priority issue.
The Nigerian government favors a consensual approach over direct action or litigation, says Adebiyi, citing the Benin Dialogue Group – a forum between Nigerian stakeholders and US and European museums over the Benin Bronzes.
“We have tried mediation…we don’t want to spoil anyone’s business,” he says. “But we cannot allow Nigerian artifacts to be sold abroad as they mean so much to us.”
For its part, Christie’s has indicated a willingness to discuss the wider issues.
“We acknowledge there are nuanced and complex debates around cultural property and history,” the Christie’s source said. “We wish to work in partnership with all stakeholders and where there is an opportunity, work diligently to find the right solutions for works of art.”
As of now Monday’s auction is scheduled to go ahead as planned.