Don’t return artefacts to Nigeria, says expert

Leading expert on Nigerian antiquities warns that government and museum officials in the country are involved with the illicit trade of artefacts to the West

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The most distinguished specialist on Nigerian antiquities is now urging that looted and stolen artefacts should no longer be returned to Nigeria, because of endemic corruption in the country.

Frank Willett, former director of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, says he has adopted this position with great reluctance. Writing in the latest issue of the Journal of Museum Ethnography, he explains: “It is indeed depressing that having spent the last forty years trying to demonstrate that the peoples of Nigeria have a history and an artistic heritage of which they can be proud, to find that those who now hold the roles we once did are not only not taking care of their heritage, but are exploiting this irreplaceable material by allowing its illicit export to dealers and collectors in the West.”

Professor Willett points to thefts in recent years from museums at Abadan, Abeokuta, Esie, Jos and Owo. Among the most recent cases he has uncovered is a famous ancient bronze stool, the greatest treasure of the Ife University Museum of Art, which was stripped of its collection in a series of thefts in 1993-94. Professor Willett reveals that it has now turned up in America, “accompanied with what appears to be a valid official Clearance Permit issued on 20 June, 1994 and signed by an officer of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments as ‘examined and found to be non-antiquity’.” He concludes: “One wonders whether the authorisation of this export is due to incompetence or to corruption.”

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has recently been pressing museums, collectors and dealers not to acquire looted items on its “Red List” (including Nok terracottas, Ife terracottas and bronzes, Esie stone statues and Sao terracottas and bronzes), and for them to be returned to their country of origin. Pressure was also exerted by ICOM on the Louvre not to display two ancient Nok terracottas bought by the Musée du quai Branly from a Belgian dealer (The Art Newspaper, No. 104, June 2000, pp. 1, 9).

But Professor Willett believes that returning “Red List” artefacts to Nigeria would now be misguided: “I have been keeping an eye on the art market and attempting to arrange for the return of pieces stolen from Nigerian museums ever since I left the paid service of the Nigerian Government in 1963, yet here I am recommending that objects should not be returned.”

This view is backed by John Picton of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, who in the same issue of the Journal of Museum Ethnography describes Professor Willett’s forceful assessment as “entirely accurate”. Picton adds that “thefts and illegal excavations constitute at least as serious a tragedy as the looting of the art of Benin City by British forces in 1897.”

Professor Willett’s article concludes with what he describes as one hopeful straw in the wind: “It has just been reported that charges of embezzlement have been brought by the new [Nigerian] regime against one member of staff of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Don’t return artefacts to Nigeria'

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