Saturday 17 July 2021

Nigeria, Belgian art dealer for Int'l dispute resolution

Minister of  Information and Culrire, Lai Mohammed (middle); D-G, NCMM, Dr Aba Isa Tijani (right); and SA to the president (Media), Segun Adeyemi, during the briefing on Saturday.

TRANSBORDER trade in cultural objects may have another legal battle betw-een a state and art dealers over ownership claims as Nigeria attempts to recover its stolen artefacts from a foreign individual.

On Saturday, July 17, 2021, Nigeria's Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed disclosed that the country is heading for dispute resolution with a Belgian who demanded to be paid $5m as compensation before returning an alleged illicitly acquired bronze of Nigerian origin. Though not yet in court, Mohammed said a hearing is already before a mediation and recovery committee of international status. The hearing, the minister said, has been fixed for October this year.

One of the world's leading auction house, Sotheby's, was in a legal battle with Greece over the latter's halt of a 8th-century BC Greek equestrian statue headed for the hammer in 2008. The Greek government claimed that the sculpture, estimated for $150,000-$250,000, should be returned to the country. In June 2020,  Sotheby's lost the ownership claim of the object in a US Supreme court. 

Mohammed, who, along with the Director-General of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Dr Aba Isa Tijani, spoke on the planned return of over 10000 artefacts from Germany to Nigeria, explained that the London Metropolitan Police intercepted the bronze ahead of an auction. Should the mediation fail to resolve the dispute, it's not likely that the Belgian dealer's case will be different from that of Sotheby's lost battle against Greece in any court.

"We have also secured a date in October 2021 for the repatriation of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum in New York," Mohammed told journalists in Lagos on Saturday. "These antiquities consist of two important Benin Bronzes and an exquisite Ife Bronze head." He added that "we are currently before the Intergovernm- ental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to it Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) in Paris, where we have instituted a claim against a Belgian who wanted to auction an Ife Bronze head valued at $5 million, at least."

Specifically, on the controversy over the destination of the expected Benin bronzes from Germany when returned to Nigeria, Mohammed said the International laws that guide management of artefacts vested such powers on central government and not a sub-state. "Let me state clearly here that, in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany," Mohammed clarified the state-to-state factor. "Nigeria is the entity recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria. The relevant international Conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups." 

He cited example of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, from Article 1, which defines cultural property as that so designated by a nation. He stressed that the convention allows individual nations to determine what it regards as its cultural property. He explained further: "Nevertheless, the Nigerian state -  through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments - has in working assiduously over the past years to repatriate our looted artefacts carried along our important traditional institutions and state governments.   What I am saying in essence is that the Federal government will take possession of these antiquities, because it is its duty to do so, in line with the extant laws. But we have always exercised this right in cognizance of that culture that produced the art works. That is why the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments have always involved both the Edo State government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that have now resulted in the impending return of these antiquities. Please note that we are not just involved in the repatriation of Benin artefacts."

Excerpts from Mohammed's speech; 

"Recall, gentlemen, that on Nov. 28th 2019, I announced, at a press conference here in Lagos, the launch of the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria's Looted/Smuggled Artifacts from around the world. I said that with the launch, we are putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria's cultural property anywhere in the world that we are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available. Less than two years after that announcement, I can report back to Nigerians that our efforts at repatriating Nigeria’s looted artefacts are achieving positive results. The work ahead remains tough and daunting, but we will not relent until we have repatriated all our stolen and smuggled antiquities. These artefacts are so cherished all over the world and we realize that if they are returned to Nigeria and properly exhibited within and outside the country under our control, they stand to increase the influx of tourists to our nation and earn us good money. Of course, these timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history.

"3. Gentlemen, even though not everyone in possession of these artefacts is willing to return them, we remain undeterred as we have deployed all legal and diplomatic means and we have been recording successes in our quest for repatriation. Here are some of the successes we have recorded since that press conference in 2019:-   In October 2020, The Netherlands returned a highly-valued 600-year-old Ife Terracotta.-   In March 2021, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to return a Benin Bronze from its collections. We shall take possession of this in October this year.-   In April 2021, we received a bronze piece from Mexico.-   The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has also agreed to return a disputed Benin artefact. We will soon commence the procedure for the repatriation of this highly-valued piece.  

 "4. The most remarkable progress in our quest to repatriate our looted artefacts has been recorded in Germany, which is currently working with us for the repatriation of 1,130 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. As you are aware, I recently led a high-level Nigerian delegation to Berlin, Germany, to iron out the modalities for the repatriation. During the trip, our delegation met with Prof. Monika Grutters, the German Minister of State for Culture, who has  responsibility for antiquities; the German Foreign Minister, Mr. Heiko Maas, the Secretary of State in the German President's office, Mr. Stephen Steinlein, and Harmann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is the centre of the German culture establishment, and his team, I also met with the Directors of at least 20 major museums. The negotiations were tough but fruitful. We have agreed that there is no going back on the issue of returning the Benin Bronzes.

 "5.  At the meetings in Germany, I insisted, and it was resolved that provenance research on the Benin Bronzes cannot and must not delay their return, since the origin of Benin objects is not a subject of dispute as such objects are only associated with the Benin Kingdom. On the German authorities' proposal to return a 'substantial part' of the Benin Bronzes. I have asserted the stand of the Nigerian government by demanding full and unconditional release of the artefacts. Concerning recording the artefacts in 3D formats for posterity and academic sake under the 'digitalbenin' project, of which we are a part. I have told the Germans that this work of digitalizing the Benin Bronzes must not delay the return of the artefacts and that issues related to copyrights ownership and other rights over the digitalized objects will be discussed soon.

"6. We agreed to have a definitive timeline for the repatriation of the artefacts because Nigeria is tired of an indefinite timeline. Therefore, we resolved that the agreement on the repatriation should be signed in December 2021 and the repatriation should be concluded by August 2022. I told the Germans that Nigeria is averse to attaching pre-conditions to repatriating the Benin Bronzes. These are our properties, do not give us conditions for releasing them. We therefore agreed that the release will be unconditional, neither will it be staggered.

"7. It must be noted, however, that the meetings in Germany were not only about repatriating these objects. We have decided that the repatriation of the artefacts should not be the end of an era but the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations, pivoted by cultural diplomacy, between Nigeria and Germany. In this regard, there are other benefits accruing to Nigeria from the ongoing talks. There will be archaeological training for Nigerians. The Nigerian side and the German side agreed to Nigeria’s proposal to use the repatriated artefacts and other works of art to inspire Nigeria’s Creative Industry towards realizing its high potential. For this andother purposes, it was agreed that the Germans will facilitate the establishment of an academy in Nigeria."

 Still on FG's plans on recovering more looted artefacts' the minister stated:

 "We are also working on repatriating Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun etc. Recall, gentlemen, our efforts over the Igbo statues that were auctioned at Christie’s in Year 2020, and the fact that we took the British and Belgian authorities to ICPRCP in 2019 over an Ifeobject.10."

 Mohammed thanked everyone, including Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, for their contributions.  "Finally, I want to most sincerely commend the Government of Germany for taking the lead in the global efforts to repatriate all artefacts that were looted from Nigeria and indeed from the African continent. 

 "As I said during the meetings in Berlin, we see Germany as a leader in the efforts to take practical steps to repatriate our stolen artefacts, and we hope Germany will sustain that lead. I also want to thank Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, who was with us all through the tough negotiations in Berlin, and His Royal Majesty the Oba of Benin, who sent the Benin Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Ezelekhae Ewuare, to be a part of the Nigerian delegation to Berlin. 

 "We thank all Nigerians, especially the media, for their support for our efforts to repatriate all our looted artefacts.11.   Gentlemen, I thank you for listening. I will now take your questions."

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