May 1, 2012

Questions of provenance arising from destroyed Nigerian Nok statue in New York

Posted at 5:23 pm in Similar cases

The owner of a Nok statue accidentally destroyed by a magazine photographer is suing for the cost of the statue. Other issues remain unanswered in this case though, relating to the exact provenance of the terracotta figure & how it ended up in New York in the first place.

Damage such as this once again raises the issue of whether such artefacts really are in any way guaranteed to be looked after better in the west.

You can read the press coverage of the story, which includes pictures of the statue, here.

Kwame Opoku (by email)

1 May 2012.

It has been reported in the New York Daily News that the widow of the French artist Arman, is suing in Manhattan Supreme Court for damage to a Nok sculpture caused during a photo shooting session for an art magazine. The sculpture fell and broke into pieces as shown above. Apparently, assistants of the magazine had moved the sculpture from its usual secure position. Mrs Arman has claimed that the sculpture was worth some $300,000. What will the average Nigerian think of this sum?

A question that will surely be raised is whether the precious object was insured against damage and for how much. If it was not insured, this may well reflect on the value attached to it by the owner.

It would be interesting to see whether the issue of the legality of the possession/control of the Nok artefact would be raised in the course of this case.
Many of the Nok sculptures in the West are presumed to be of doubtful provenance, a large number having been looted from Nigeria.

Mrs Arman is reported to have stated “I lived with it for over 25 years,”
If the Nok sculpture was acquired in1986/87, the question arises as to the applicability of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import.Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Both the United States of America (02/09/1983) and Nigeria (24/01/1972) are parties to this convention. Did the acquisition of the Nok sculpture violate the UNESCO Convention?

Nok artefacts have been placed since 1997 on the ICOM Red List for Africa
It is since then prohibited, and therefore illegal, to export or import Nok artefacts from Nigeria. These objects are part of the historical records of Nigeria and should under no circumstances leave Nigeria.

It would also be instructive to see if the Nigerian Government/the National Commission on Museums and Monuments will intervene in this case to make representations on behalf of the Nigerian peoples and Government. After all, the Nok sculpture may have been exported in violation of a Nigerian law. There has been a ban on export of antiquities from Nigeria without permission from the authorities as far back as the 1953 Antiquities Ordinance. The relevant laws, ordinances, and decrees issued in 1969, 1974 and 1979 have been consolidated in the National Commission for Museums and Monuments Act, Chapter 242, Laws of Nigeria, 1990. Section 25 (1) of the Act provides that “no antiquity shall be exported from Nigeria without a permit issued in that behalf by the Commission.”
In this connection, it would be useful to have a list of the number of authorizations Nigeria has given for exportation of antiquities, including Nok sculptures, outside the country.

If the possessor or controller of the broken Nok sculpture is unable to establish the legality of its acquisition, various issues arise. For example, can one compensate a holder of an illegal object for damage inflicted on the object by another person?

What is really the value of a cultural and historical object that means more to Nigerian history and culture than to US American history and culture? Will the court be guided by the market price of an object that is not, in its country of origin, regarded as saleable object but evidence of the history of the people?

The lawyer of the claimant is reported to have stated that the accident was “a loss of world heritage. It’s a terrible, terrible thing.” Hopefully, all concerned would realize that the removal of the Nok sculpture from its original location in Nigeria was equally a terrible thing. The great Ekpo Eyo declared that

“It is indeed unfortunate that so much Nok material has been looted over time to supply the international market. Properly excavated, such pieces might have shed valuable light on the Nok culture.”

These words should be borne in mind by all those who deal with Nok sculptures and other African antiquities removed from their original locations under dubious conditions.

The broken Nok sculpture raises the fundamental question whether artefacts of a particular people or country should at all be allowed to be kept in private homes in the West. The irreparable loss caused by damage, as in this case, should finally awaken those in the West who have always supported such practices. Artefacts that are important to a particular country or people should be kept by that country or people and not by others in foreign countries that need the objects for their personal prestige and aesthetic contemplation.

Symbols of African culture and achievement do not belong to Western homes. How would Westerners feel if precious evidence of their culture and their history were to be kept in African locations after being looted or stolen from Europe? It is evident from Ekpo Eyo’s, magnificent book, Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, that the majority of Nigeria’s finest artworks are in Western
countries. And yet some persons do not see anything wrong with this perverse situation.

Will a judge be able to order the return of the Nok sculpture to its country of origin? Properly informed and advised, a judge may well come to the conclusion that, in view of the atrocious history of plunder of African artefacts, the return of sculpture, even a broken one, may be a contribution to the fight against the illicit traffic; it may also strengthen attempts to restore to Africans their human right to independent cultural development and free practice of their religion, free from the constant threat of looting for the West.

The fate of the broken Nok has given lie to the argument that African sculptures are better protected in the West. An African sculpture that is some 2,630 years old has thus been destroyed in a Manhattan home in the United States of America.

Kwame Opoku, 1 May 2012.

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