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More details on return of looted kigango

Further details of the return of the Kenyan kigango [1] from Illinois State Museum. This is just one of many stolen artefacts that are currently displayed in museums however, as highlighted by the Egyptian case discussed at the end of the article.

St. Louis Today (USA) [2]

Illinois museum surrenders artifact
By Kevin McDermott

A 4-foot wooden tribute to the dead is on its way back to Kenya, after a theft and global trip that ultimately landed it in the vault of the Illinois State Museum.

Kenyan government officials hope the return of the artifact – the first gesture of its kind by a Western museum – will spur others to stop viewing objects from Kenya’s native customs as mere pieces of interesting art.

“You may call it a piece of wood,” but families that lose the items often blame that loss for crop failures and even family deaths, said Suleiman Shakombo, Kenya’s minister of state for national heritage. He was part of a Kenyan delegation that received the wooden post in Springfield on Wednesday.

Officials in the Kenyan delegation, which included its ambassador to the U.S., said it was the first time any Kenyan artifact has ever been formally returned from an overseas museum.

One delegation member, Idle Farah, director general of the National Museums of Kenya, called for “an appeal to institutions” that hold native art to consider returning it to its place of origin. “The Illinois State Museum has shown the way,” he said.

Officials at the St. Louis Art Museum aren’t rushing to follow suit. An official there said Wednesday that the museum has no plans to return a 3,200-year-old mask that Egypt claims was stolen. The museum disputes that claim.

In the case of the Kenyan “kigango,” an unusual set of coincidences led Illinois State Museum officials to conclude that the work they had was, in fact, stolen.

The flat, decorative post is a uniquely Kenyan item, traditionally carved by families to honor recently deceased relatives. The kigango in question was carved in the 1960s and photographed in 1985 by anthropologist Monica Udvardy of the University of Kentucky. Her photo, showing two of the posts standing next to their Kenyan owner, was taken shortly before both were stolen.

Officials have since determined that one of the posts was sold by a Kenyan antiques dealer and ended up in the anthropological collection of Illinois State University, which transferred it to the Illinois State Museum in 2001.

While the item was at ISU, it was viewed by another anthropologist, Linda Giles, who later saw Udvardy’s 1985 photo and recognized the same item in it. Giles and Udvardy worked together to bring the issue to officials’ attention.

Illinois State Museum director Bonnie Styles, faced with the evidence that the kigango was stolen, said, “The decision for us was clear-cut and simple.”

The decision hasn’t been so simple for the current owners of the other kigango in the photograph, which the two anthropologists traced to Hampton University in Virginia. “They keep on telling us they legally acquired it,” said Shakombo.

A phone message left at Hampton University’s museum Wednesday afternoon wasn’t immediately returned.

Professional standards in museums generally mandate the return of items that can be shown to have been stolen. But proving theft is often difficult, as Egyptian officials have discovered in their attempt to get the Egyptian mask back from the St. Louis Art Museum.

“The museum has said it would not keep in our collection any item that was proven to be stolen,” said Jennifer Stoffel, museum marketing director. The museum maintains that its provenance, or ownership history, of the mask shows no theft, and that Egyptian authorities haven’t proven otherwise.

Egyptian officials have claimed that the mask was stolen in the early 1990s from a storage facility near the site of its excavation. Both sides in the dispute are still talking, Stoffel said.

Meanwhile, the kigango that made its way to Springfield will be returned to the Kenyan owners in a ceremony in Kenya, officials said.