Tuesday 30 June 2020

Congo Mask, 'stolen' Nigerian sculptures swell over Eur 1million auction sales

Songye Mask of Republic of Congo, sold for EUR 420,400. 

With total sales of EUR 1,396,900, including buyer’s premium for 26 lots, Christie's auction defiantly sold, among others, alleged stolen Nigerian artefacts yesterday.

Among top sales of the Christie's 'Arts of Africa, Oceania and North America' auction was Songye Mask of Republic of Congo, sold for EUR 420,400. Next most valuable commercial sale of the day was Pair of Igbo Statues Attributed To The Master Of Awka Couple, Nri-Awka Region, Nigeria, sold for EUR 212,500.

Amid objections to the sale of the Nigerian origin pieces involved, Christie's had replied to a letter from National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). "We have not been presented with any substantiated grounds to challenge the ownership of these lots and we regret that we cannot accede to your request to suspend the sale," a reply dated June 26, and signed by Cecile Verdier stated.

A Cimer Boki Headresss sold for EUR 32,500 and Edo Hip MaSK, EUR 11,250, were among other works of Nigerian origin sold during the sales.

The NCMM letter, dated June 17, addressed to Victor Teodorescu, Head of Sale, African and Oceanic Art Department, Christie’s Gallery was also copied Bruno Claessens, European Head of the African and Oceanic Art Department Christie’s Gallery. Signed by the Acting Director-General, NCMM, Aliyu Abdu, excerpts from a copy of the letter reads: "We are surprised to discover the advertisement of the under-listed artefacts on your website for a planned auction scheduled to hold on the 29th of June, 2020, 3pm at 9 Avenue Matignon, Paris. France.

"These artefacts as you have stated are from Nigeria and they lack the proper providence. We thus request that you suspend the auction and provide us with the provenance of these artefacts because we are of the opinion that they belong to classes of antiquities that Nigeria will object to their exchange or transfer.

"Some of them are not just mere objects in some fancy collection. They have sacred purposes within the community." The letter listed Lots 29, 30, 31, 47 and 49 as the contentious artefacts."

However, there is something to learn from now Greece handled similar situation against another auction house, Sotheby's. Three weeks ahead of Christie’s sales in Paris, a ruling by US Court of Appeal — in an unrelated issue — ruled against Sotheby"s over sale of Greek origin artefact.

In 2018, Greece prevented Sotheby’s from selling an ancient equestrian statue over questionable provenance and demanded that the sculpture be returned to the country. In response, the auction house challenged Greece’s claim in court. On June 9, 2020, the US Appeal Court ruled that Sotheby’s cannot sue Greece because the country’s interest in the artefact was non-commercial.

After the ruling against Sotheby’s, Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni told VOA the judgment was of "enormous legal importance," particularly for countries fighting against illegal antiquities trade. Having legally stopped Sotheby's from selling the piece, next for Greece is to file a repatriation suit. "The ministry will proceed with every legal process to repatriate the statuette, stressing that when stolen and illegally exported monuments are returned," the country of origin recovers part of its lost history, Mendoni said.

Ahead of the controversial Christie's sales, a source at NCMM had hinted of a possible legal action against the auction house should the sales go ahead.

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