Nine artefacts sacred to the Mijikenda people, a tribe which lives on the Kenyan coast, have been returned to them by the heir of film producer Lewis M. Allen and his screenwriter wife, Jay Presson Allen.
The statues were discovered at the Allen’s estate sale in January by Connecticut dealer Kelly Gingras whose research later determined they had been looted and exported from Kenya. She presented her findings to the current owner of the works, Ms Brooke Allen, who agreed to return them to Kenya. Ms Allen believes the statues were purchased by her parents during a trip to Kenya in the late 70s or early 80s for approximately $50 to $75.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Ms Gingras says it took Ms Allen “less than five minutes to come to the decision that they should be returned to Africa”. With the help of Charles Stith, director of Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Centre and former US ambassador to Tanzania, the statues were handed over to Kenyan ambassador Peter Ogego at a UN ceremony on 25 June.
Varying in height from four to six feet, the statues, known as vigango, serve as memorial statues for deceased members of a special fraternal sect within the Mijikenda tribe. Relatives venerate the vigango, believing they are inhabited by ancestral spirits.
A vigango sculpture can sell for up to $10,000 and experts warn that they are being looted at an alarming rate. Dr Monica Udvardy, professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky, says: “Vigango are stolen almost as soon as they are erected and sold to metropolitan shopkeepers from where they eventually make their way to the US and Europe.”
Ms Gingras says she hopes other collectors will follow Ms Allen’s lead. “We have set an example of how easily the right thing can de done,” she says. Their efforts appear to be paying off as an unnamed US collector with six vigango has recently contacted Ms Gingras asking her to help arrange their return.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'US collector returns relics sacred to Kenyan tribe'