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The problem of artefact trafficking

An anthropologist in the Illinois has been working with a Kenyan family to secure the return of religious artefacts to them. She says that this is only the tip of the problem though & that African artefacts are still being stolen today & then sold to buyers in the US.

Central Illinois Pantagraph [1]

Thursday, September 14, 2006 2:43 PM CDT
Anthropologist: Artifact trafficking still a problem
By Michele Steinbacher

SPRINGFIELD – Normal anthropologist Linda Giles, who played a key role in helping a Kenyan family get its religious artifact back, says trafficking in stolen such artifacts continues to be a global problem.

In the last decade, she and University of Kentucky anthropologist Monica Udvardy have found more than 350 vigango in about 20 U.S. institutions, including the Illinois State Museum, Hampton University in Virginia, Indiana University and San Diego University.

The anthropologists, along with Kenyan government leaders, contend the memorial wood carvings are stolen, noting the custom among the Mijikenda people is to be plant the posts and never move them. Yet reports of their theft are common.

“Most of these have been stolen,” Udvardy said on Wednesday at an Illinois State Museum ceremony to repatriate one of the statues to Kenyan officials.

The researchers continue to revisit the Swahili Coast region and track the problem, each time finding the thefts continue, she said. Udvardy and Giles now are working on a film documentary to raise awareness about the problems with westerners unwittingly buying the stolen goods.

Interpol, the international police agency, estimates the world’s illicit art trade is a $4.5 billion industry, fourth only to arms, drugs and endangered animal products, said Udvardy.

Vigango usually go for $4,000 to $5,000 a piece on the market, she said.

They also are working with Kenyan museum professionals to find ways to document the posts so they can be traced if stolen.

“We’re trying to take photos of ones that haven’t been stolen yet, but they’re aren’t many out there,” said Giles.

The task of quelling westerners’ desire for “authentic” African artifacts may seem daunting, Udvardy said. But, she doesn’t see it as an impossible task.

She compares the anthropologists’ mission of preserving African cultural heritage to that of biologists’ efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to show the public the exotic fur trade was endangering species.

Udvardy said she thinks that if people learn the difference between artifacts created for tourist purchase and authentic cultural pieces, the artifacts can be saved.

“I think we can do it,” she said.