Widespread Looting of Antiquities Robs Africa of Its Cultural Heritage


Africans slip into villages to hack bronze plaques from doors and steal statues from shrines, replacing colonizers as looters of the continent’s antiquities.

They sell the plunder to collectors abroad.

“Next to drugs, trading in cultural property--in our heritage--is the highest item on the list of illegal trafficking, and Nigeria is the biggest victim in Africa,” said Ade Obayemi, director of museums and monuments in this West African nation.

Ransacking of towns and villages began in the 19th Century and Europeans shipped home tons of booty. Among items that grace European museums are masks, bronzes, stone and ivory statues, terra cotta figurines and pottery dating to sophisticated civilizations of the 3rd Century BC.


Critics have come to regard some African art as among the world’s finest, which opens the way for speculation and more plundering.

Nigerian terra cottas from the 11th Century, which reached the market less than 20 years ago, have been compared to Mesopotamian figures and those from the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico and Peru.

Rich collectors who keep their acquisitions secret drive the illicit trade.

Their work is done by “well-funded clandestine cartels stretching from African go-betweens who employ gangs of thieves to security forces who close one eye or both for a price,” Obayemi said.


“Other African countries are used as transit points, but the eventual market is the United States, Britain, Japan and European countries like Germany and France.”

A sign at Lagos International Airport declares: “The law prohibits the export of antiquities,” but some corrupt officials will look the other way for the price of a beer.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has a convention against such traffic and mediates negotiations among countries. Under its aegis, Belgium returned thousands of objects taken from Zaire, its former colony.

The United States is a signatory to the convention, but Africa’s main colonizers, Britain and France, are not.


“Many former colonial powers say they are ready to return such objects, but only if the countries they are returned to provide the necessary security and conservation techniques,” said Abdelkader Errahmani, chief of UNESCO’s cultural heritage program.

He spoke by telephone from the Paris headquarters of UNESCO.

Obayemi said some Nigerian villagers have been harassed or induced into selling carved wooden doors that tourists literally take off their huts.

“People are poor and getting poorer, and they are offered hard currency,” he said. “It’s tempting.”


Looting has hampered research. As Obayemi put it: “We are reluctant to publish findings because it is like soliciting for these multimillion-dollar cartels to come and pilfer and loot.

“Every day, some village head or community leader is contacting us to report the theft of their antiquities,” he said. Some communities have adopted the drastic remedy of sticking their precious belongings together in mounds of concrete.

Efforts to stop the thefts are constrained by lack of money and manpower, Obayemi said, partly because “few black African countries take their cultural heritage seriously. . . . It is a tragedy in West Africa that reflects badly on our governments.”

Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, said its listings of stolen art objects included “very, very few reports from Africa.”


She said the foundation was trying to stop art thefts by making the market difficult, but “as with drugs, it’s hard to keep the collectors from wanting it, and as long as there is a little pot of gold . . . a whole chain will be activated.”

In a modest operation, Obayemi and his staff photograph scenes of crimes and artifacts similar to stolen goods, document their descriptions and origins, and inform governments and museums abroad.

By that method, they recently recovered a spectacular bronze bust, one of several pieces stolen four years ago from the museum in Jos, central Nigeria.

It was offered for sale in November by an obscure auction house in Switzerland. Swiss collectors Peter Schnell and his wife became suspicious and telephoned John Pemberton III, an American anthropologist at Amherst College in Massachusetts, to ask whether Nigeria was selling its antiquities.


They thought the statue must be fake, but Pemberton asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Lowenthal’s foundation, which said it was listed as stolen.

“The statue is priceless,” Pemberton said. “It is an exquisite work of art and a national treasure.”

Obayemi sent an assistant to identify the bust, which dates to the Bini empire that ruled part of Nigeria from about the 15th Century. Long court proceedings were avoided when the man offering it for sale admitted falsifying the origins.

“We think he was tricked,” Obayemi said. He refused to identify the man, who was helping with an investigation that might lead to other stolen pieces. Sources in international art circles said he was an expert on African antiquities.


Obayemi was reluctant to discuss the money value of the recovered figure, now locked up in Lagos. Similar pieces have been sold by the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s for up to $1 million.

“Placing monetary values on these things is outrageous,” Obayemi said. “They are not objets d’art . For us, they have spiritual and religions dimensions. They are our cultural heritage.