Art Around the World

Calls to stop the Plundering of African Art

By Tom Gross, August 15, 2000

There is growing concern that gangs are smuggling the best of Africa’s tribal art to Britain. Crowns, carvings, masks and statues some dating back 2000 years are among the items that are alleged to have been looted from protected sites to satisfy demand among collectors in Europe.

Investigators believe that the plunder is being carried out by large organized gangs, some of them several hundred strong. Many items are said to have been stolen from museums and temples or from archaeological digs. In other cases, corrupt museum officials are thought to have accepted bribes to allow gang members to simply walk out of museums with valuable artifacts.

Some illegally exported items are being sold openly by London art dealers. For example, one shop in London’s trendy Notting Hill neighborhood recently offered for sale a Yoruba tribal crown, decorated with birds, which is believed to have been made for the king of the walled city of Abeokuta 100 years ago. This is a protected item in Nigeria.

The Nigerian embassy in London has issued a formal complaint to auction houses and antique dealers in the British capital about the large number of African art works that are being put up for sale without provenance information.

Recently, the Horniman Museum in London became the first museum to be formally censured for buying stolen African art. Both the UK Museums Association and the Horniman’s own board of trustees have criticized the museum’s management.

The British government has promised to find ways to curtail the sales, which are thought to be worth up to $1 billion per year. But the UK Museums Association says not enough is being done, and have called on the British government to pass special legislation intended to end the trade in illegal goods completely.

In 1970, the United Nations organization, UNESCO, initiated a treaty that aimed at preventing the looting of antiquities. However, many countries, including Britain, still have not signed it.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.