Sunday 21 June 2020

Stopping 'season' of illicit Nigerian art trade in Paris, London, Seoul

Edo Hip Mask (Benin, Nigeria). Pic: Christy's website.
About three weeks ahead of Christie’s and Sotheby's sales of suspected illicit African artefacts, a ruling by US Court of Appeal — in an unrelated issue — has strengthened the power of sovereign states to stop commercial transaction of cultural objects.

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. And on June 9, 2020, the US Appeal Court, according to quite a number of media reports, ruled that Sotheby’s cannot sue Greece because the country’s interest in the artefact was non-commercial.
Later this month, specifically, June 29, artefacts of West African origin, including some from Nigeria, Gabon and Benin Republic are going on sales at both Christie’s and Sotheby's different auctions. Also, over two weeks ago, a notice to stop sales of Nigerian origin artefacts by Barakat Gallery, London, UK and Seoul, South Korea has been recorded.

Like the Greece’s contentious equestrian object, the African artefacts that the auction houses have publicized for sales, carry contentious and questionable provenance. However, unlike the Greece’s situation, a legal process is not likely to surface between any of the African countries concerned and the auction houses, ahead of the sales. As at the time of going to the press for this report, Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) had its hands full in stopping, at least, two or three auction outlets involved in suspected stolen cultural objects of the country.

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.

For Christie’s proposed-sales of its Arts of Africa, Oceania and North America, in Paris, some sculptures with Nigerian, Benin Republic and Gabonese origins also come with clandestine provenance. Listed among the lots in the online catalogue of Christie's website for the June 29 auction are Belt Mask Edo and Edo Hip Mask, Kingdom of Benin, selling for EUR 10,000-EUR 15,000 (USD 11,247-USD 16,870); Edo Bronze Plate, estimated for EUR 30,000-EUR 50,000 (USD 33,740 - USD 56,233); Pair of Igbo Statues Attributed To The Master Of Awka Couple, Nri-Awka Region, Nigeria, selling for EUR 250,000-EUR 350,000; Urhobo- Meeting-House Posts, estimated.for EUR 80,000 - EUR 120,000(USD 89,973 - USD 134,959); and Urhobo Figure, going for between EUR 600,000 - EUR 900,000(USD 674,797 - USD 1,012,195).

With no specific dates for any of the works, the provenance has created a deliberate distraction, perhaps meant to prevent any spotlight on the works as being from the prohibited Red List of ICOM. Among the works described by ICOM under its Red List are artefacts and other cultural objects not approved for export by country of origin.

Christie's described Belt Mask Edo and Edo Hip Mask as sourced from Robert L. Stolper, Stolper Galleries, New York, but "acquired" via the collection of James and Marilynn Alsdorf, Chicago, on April 24, 1961. How the foreign collectors got the works directly or not, from Nigeria, is not explained in the auction house's provenance.

Also, lacking appropriate provenance are the Igbo Statues, described by the same auction house as from Jacques Kerchache Collection, Paris, Ana and Antonio Casanovas & Bernard de Grunne, Madrid / Brussels, 2010. Similarly, the Urhobo Meeting House piece on the list is said to be of Count Simon du Chastel (1926-2014), Brussels, acquired in 1972  from Philippe Ratton and Daniel Hourdé, Paris.
Pair of Igbo Statues Attributed To The Master Of Awka Couple, Nri-Awka Region, Nigeria. Pic: From Christie's website.

In all the artefacts, no date to place any as either modern or ancient.  A strong pedestal on which Greece stopped Sotheby's was the fact that the period of the equestrian work falls under several UNESCO red List. From all indications, the collectors' legitimacy in acquitions of the African works being put up for sales by Christie's and Sotheby's have not been established. Basically, the date of an art piece, mostly of suspected artefact status, provides an easy ground to track its origin. None of the African art pieces for both the auction houses were dated.

Prof of Art History, Chika   Okeke-Agulu — who, two weeks ago, raised alarm over the illegitimacy of Christie's to sell the Igbo Statues — continued to challenge the auction house's proposed sales. Perhaps the age or date of the Igbo pieces, if available, could give a path into whatever the auction houses might be hiding. Okeke-Agulu of African and African Diaspora Art, Princeton University, Department of Art & Archaeology, few days ago, said "I cannot provide a definite answer," as regards the age of the sculptures. "But, they were taken from shrines and community houses in Eastern Nigeria in 1968-1970," Okeke-Agulu stated via email.  He explained that being of wood medium, irrespective of how old the works are, the condition would still be fairly good. He suggested that the sculptures "must have been made in the 20th century, with a few perhaps even late 19th century."

With or without evidence of illicit trade against Christie's, over the proposed sales of the Nigerian origin art pieces, NCMM, on Wednesday, said "we are tracking the situation." Babatunde Adebiyi, Legal Adviser at NCMM disclosed that the commission was already gathering information and will respond adequately. Less than 24 hours after, NCMM stated that a letter dated June 17 has been sent to Christie's, requesting the auction house to stop the proposed-sales.

The letter, 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 received by this writer 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.

For Sotheby's sales come provenance of a piece taken from 1931, and described as "African reliquary" sculpture, of which the auction house provided no details of origin. Scheduled for sale at Sotheby’s evening of contemporary art in New York' June 29, the statue has been labelled after one of its collectors, by the auction house, as 'The Clyman Fang Head.'
Urhobo- Meeting-House Posts. Pic: From Christie's website.
To boost commercial value of art, it's a common practice among auction houses to use popular collectors' names as promotional spin. In such situation, the identity and origin of the work is not completely removed in contrast to Sotheby's distorted provenance against the African sculpture mentioned.

Clearly, the sculpture has all the suspicions of going under the hammer without its origin known. The provenance available include its movements from one collector to another after it first appeared in 1931. In fact, the name of the sculpture is derived from what appears as its second or third collector.

More interesting, the sculpture is not dated to any period, which makes it complex to place either as ancient or modern African art piece. From Sotheby's press statement, no date, or cultural location in Africa was mentioned, even if the piece were of ancient origin.

 “We are excited to present the exquisite Clyman Fang Head to a new audience of collectors for the first time in our Contemporary Art Evening auction," David Galperin, Head of Sotheby's Evening Auction of Contemporary Art in New York stated. "Beyond its renown as a legendary icon of classical African Art, what struck me about this singular sculpture when I first saw it in the Clyman home alongside their collection of Post-war art was how its form appeared so radical and purely modern."

Yoruba Wooden Divination Bowl. ( 20th Century AD, 6.5″ (41.9cm) high x 8.5″ (21.6cm) wide x 9.5″ (24.1cm) depth). Pic: Barakat Gallery.
With presale estimate of between US$2.5 million and US$4 million, the piece is being featured alongside masterpieces from artists such as Clyfford Still, Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat. "The sculpture last appeared on the market in 1992 when the Clymans acquired it at auction in New York," Sotheby's disclosed.

While the date of the work, its cultural or religious link to specific place in Africa and artist are unknown, the provenance tracks index collection to Charles Ratton, the popular Parisian patron of African art. The provenance explains how, in the 1930s, the head was acquired from Ratton by a modern art curator and writer, James Johnson Sweeney. And with the assistance of Ratton, Sweeney "organized the legendary 1935 exhibition African Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York."

Other group of art from Africa for the auction include what Sotheby's described as from "Kota artists," Central Africa. However, nothing suggests that The 'Clyman Fang Head' belongs in the Kota artists.

In his comment sent via internet, Prof of Art, Dele Jegede of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, U.S, described Sotheby's inadequate provence of the works for sale as unprofessional re-branding. "I am apoplectic reading Sotheby’s flagrant and shameless re-branding of this exquisite Gabon mask as Clyman’s Collection." Jegede traced such diatortion to an unrepentant tradition of derogating African origin, in cultural context. "This whole episode strongly reifies the old, time-worm method of first de-legitimizing Africanity, then forcibly stealing it only to finally appropriate and monetize it." 
  He also highlighted a deliberate creation of anonymity being given the work on the commercial platform.

"Equally on display in this ceaseless assault on Africa and its common wealth is the shameless ploy of ascribing indigenous African art to the realm of anonymity: no name of artist, no name of work, place, or purpose for which the piece was made. Oh, excuse me; it is now to be known as Clyman Collection, right? Oh well... we’re back to where we started." He asked: "who determines the value placed on this piece of unacknowledged and looted art?"

As NCMM prepares for a possible legal battle should Christie's go ahead with the June 29 sales, there is something to learn from the Greece's experience. The 8th-century BC Geometric Period horse that Greece successfully stopped Sotheby's from selling, for an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000, was well investigated by the country of origin. Greece claimed that it had been purchased in 1973 from Robin Symes, an art dealer who already got previous records of being accused of dealing in looted antiquities.

 In a post-lockdown opening of the European and Eastern art markets, NCMM seems to have its hands full tracking suspected illicit trade in art of Nigerian origin. NCMM also cited how its intervention has stopped a London, UK-based Barakat Gallery with branch in Seoul, South Korea, from selling a list of artefacts from Benin and Ife origins, recently. The letter dated June 1, 2020, and addressed to the gallery, requested for a halt of their sales, stating that "Nigeria will object to their exchange or transfer."

A check on the website of Barakat Gallery showed that the Ife and Benin ancient pieces earlier advertised for auctioning have been relocated from the auction section to another part. Perhaps, this suggested that the sales have been put on hold.

Among the pieces on Barakat's list are Yoruba Wooden Decimation bowl (Circa), 20th Century AD, Wood; and Benin Bronze sculpture of a Portuguese Man, (Circa), 17th Century AD, bronze.
 -Tajudeen Sowole. 

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