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July 31st, 2012

Posted In: fakes and forgeries

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July 31st, 2012

Posted In: Museum thefts

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July 31st, 2012

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July 31st, 2012

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July 30th, 2012

Posted In: art fraud

Ancient Statues Smuggled from Nigeria to Return Home

July 29, 2012


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.

Ekpo Eyo (1)

Two of the Nok sculptures American officials returned to the Nigerian Consul-General on July 27, 2012.

It has been reported in the home page of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) and Live Science, that Nigerian Nok sculptures, illegally exported from the country and seized by the US authorities (Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, have been handed over to the Nigerian Consul-General, Habib Baba Habu, in a repatriation ceremony. Ten Nok sculptures, over 2000 years old, and an ivory tusk were given to the Nigerian official.(2)

At the repatriation ceremony, the Nigerian Consul General is reported to have said with respect to the many Nok sculptures that are abroad that:

“Many of them are at museums all over the world, some were taken out legally.”

Habib Baba Habu also said that the items were stolen from the national museum in Nigeria, but that “There is no report of the items being stolen so now the director-general of the Nigerian museum and antiquities is now being subjected to an investigation.”

We have commented several times elsewhere about the manifold issues involved in the illegal exportation of these sculptures which are considered to be very important for the history of Nigeria and therefore are on ICOM’s Red List of artefacts that should under no circumstances leave Nigeria. (3)

One of the Nok pieces handed over to Nigeria.

There have been persistent allegations that some Nigerian officials may have been involved in the illegal export of Nok terracotta and the Nigerian Consul-General has stated that some officials are under investigation in connection with the export of the artefacts handed over in New York. What we expect of the Nigerian authorities is a full independent investigation of this matter and a public presentation of a report thereon. Also necessary would be the publication of a complete list of import authorizations given by the National Commission for Museums and Monument. This will help in determining which of the Nok pieces in the West have been legally or illegally exported. In this connection, it is clear that after the ban on exportation of Nok pieces and their inclusion on ICOMs Red List, there could be no legal exportation of the objects. There may be cases of legal exportation, with the permission of the National Commission on Museums and Monument, before the ban. This is very difficult to determine in the absence of a list of permission issued to date by the Commission. 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 view of the many Nigerian artefacts outside the country, it is remarkable that one seldom reads about list of items declared missing from the Nigerian National Museum. We also do not hear about attempts made to recover lost items through Interpol or bodies such as Art Loss Register or similar agencies. Cultural objects get lost/stolen in Nigeria but no one seems to report regularly such losses.

Also to be avoided by the Nigerian authorities is the situation where a high official from Nigeria opens an exhibition in which looted/stolen Nigerian artefacts are among the objects displayed without an indication that they are looted artefacts. We could also be spared the situation where a Nigerian official writes a foreword to a catalogue of exhibition including looted Nigerian artefacts.

A firm, clear and full statement from the Nigerian government on restitution matters and an indication of a determination to recover artefacts illegally exported from Nigeria would be a useful contribution to the fight against illicit traffic in artefacts from Nigeria. Those entrusted with the preservation and conservation of the magnificent cultural artefacts of Nigeria cannot afford to disappoint future generations.

Nok figurines handed over to Nigeria’s Consul-General Habib Baba Habu.

at repatriation ceremony

The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted. These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location. But so long as there is demand from the international art market these objects will be looted and offered for sale(4)

Kwame Opoku


1. Ekpo Eyo, From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, 2010, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, Abuja. p.23

3. K. Opoku, Revisiting Looted Nigerian Nok Terracotta Sculptures in Louvre/ Muse du Quai Branly, Paris,

-Let Others Loot for You: Looting of African Artefacts for Western Museums,

Eric Huysecom,  Le pillage de l’histoire africaine http://www.letemps.

Patrick J. Darling, The Rape of Nok and Kwatakwashi: the crisis in Nigerian Antiquities,

Ton Cremers

Stolen Egyptian Ka Nefer Nefer Mask in Saint Louis Art


“Ancient Statues Smuggled from Nigeria to Return Home”.

July 29th, 2012

Posted In: Dr. Kwame Opoku writings about looted cultural objects


July 19, 2012


“The exhibition is showcasing some of the works that made Benin (Nigeria) famous. It once again, reminds the world of a civilization truncated by the imperial forces of the colonialist. The works on show at this exhibition are some of the 3000 odd pieces of bronze and ivory works forcibly removed from my great grandfather’s palace by some Britons who invaded Benin in 1897. The British kept some of the loot for themselves and sold the rest to European and American buyers. These works now adorn public museums and private collector’s galleries, all over the world.”(1)

Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin.

Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA

As had been anticipated by many, the National Commission on Museums and Monuments,NCMM, the Nigerian authority responsible for the preservation and conservation of Nigeria’s cultural heritage has reacted to the donation by Robert Owen Lehman of 32 looted Benin artefacts to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Click for Full Size

Members of the notorious British Punitive Expedition of 1897 against Benin, posing proudly with looted Benin ivories and bronze objects.

In a statement distributed to the press, (2) Yusuf Abdallah Usman, the Director- General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, declared, “We have read with trepidation the donation of thirty-two works of Benin Art, precisely 28 Bronze and six Ivories looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897…” The Director-General added that these works that are part of the heirloom of the Benin kingdom and Nigeria generally were taken out illegally:

They form part of the history of the people. The gap created by this senseless exploitation is causing our people, untold anguish, discomfort and disillusionment”.

The Director-General took strong objection to the view attributed to a curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that the donation met all legal standards (3)and expressed Nigeria’s rejection of such a position:

We are vehemently opposed to this stance by the management of the Museum of Fine Arts. Objects taken illegally should be returned to their rightful owners and in this case the people of Nigeria. No one can give objective and true history of their patrimony however much they tried than the true owners.”

Thus Nigeria rejects the claim that the looting of the Benin artefacts by the so-called Punitive Expedition was legal. Title to those artefacts therefore did not pass to the looters. The implications of this rejection will be discussed later. The rejection of the arrogant pretension of Western curators to tell the history of those who have been deprived of their artefacts should serve as antidote to the self-importance and paternalism of some Western scholars.

What incensed most the Director-General of the NCMM was the assertion that there has been no official request for the return of the Benin artefacts, an echo of the standard Western defence anytime the issue of restitution is raised(4) The Nigerian answer was clear:

For the avoidance of doubt we hereby place it on record that we demand, as we have always done, the return of these looted works and all stolen, removed or looted artefacts from Nigeria under whatever guise.

We wish to also call on the management of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, US, to as a matter of self-respect return the 32 works to Nigeria, the rightful owners forthwith.”

The language of the Director-General is clear and unmistakable: Nigeria wants artworks looted, stolen or removed from the country to be returned. But would the Western Museums, curators and critics understand this? Will they continue saying there has been no demand for the return of these artefacts? Will they continue to argue that the request was not formal or was not specifically addressed to them? We should not underestimate the imaginative power to invent excuses and defences when it comes to the restitution by the West of looted African artefacts.

We suggest to the Director-General that a copy of the statement, with the letter head of the NCMM, should be sent to the Board of Trustees and the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at their address. A copy of the message should be sent by registered mail and another copy sent through the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC. Copies of this letter should be sent also to UNESCO, United Nations and ICOM as well as to the media. This should prevent anybody from saying later that they are not aware of the existence of any such statement.

The implications of the statement by the Director-General of the NCMM are very wide and serious. By requesting the return of Nigerian artefacts looted, stolen or removed from the country, he is putting into question the “rights“of many holders of Nigerian artefacts. As we know, most Nigerian artefacts abroad were removed from Nigeria under fairly dubious circumstances, starting with those looted in 1897, those many Nok terracottas that have been illegally exported and other Nigerian artefacts. Their enumeration alone would take days.

We read the statement of the Director-General to refer mainly to artefacts illegally removed from the country. Thus for example, genuine gifts made by traditional rulers to other foreign dignitaries and personalities are not under discussion. But what about the hasty gift made by General Gowan to the British Queen Elizabeth, in contravention of Nigerian laws?

What about those who do not hold their supposed rights directly from the nefarious punitive expedition and may have bought the artefacts from dealers? Could they plead good faith? Those who bought the Benin bronzes in 1897 and immediately thereafter, such as the Germans and Austrians, can surely not advance any arguments based on good faith. Everybody knew then that the artefacts that had arrived from Nigeria were from the bloody invasion of the Kingdom of Benin. Does this also fully apply to later purchasers? Dealers and auction houses are usually very proud to inform potential purchasers that their Benin objects came from the invasion of 1897. Can anyone therefore argue honestly that they were not aware of the illegality and illegitimacy attached to the objects they were about to purchase?

Salt cellar, Benin, Nigeria, looted in the 1897 Punitive Expedition, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Similarly, those who acquired looted Nok, artefacts can hardly pretend not to have known that they were buying looted goods after Nok artefacts had been put on the ICOM Red List as objects so important for history that they should under no circumstances leave Nigeria. In this connection, the issue of the looted NOK sculptures the French Government knowingly bought and was later authorized post facto by the Nigerian Government to keep through a dubious agreement will have to be reviewed. A leading Nigerian legal scholar,Prof. Folarin Shyllon has rightly described the agreement as an “unrighteous conclusion.” (5)

Above all copies of the agreement should be made available to the public. Moreover, we should be informed about the benefit Nigeria gained from this singular agreement. More important is the non-observance or disregard of Nigerian law by the Nigerian authorities in so far as they may be seen as condoning the violation of Nigerian law by France. It hardly needs to be stated that a government that does not observe its own laws will find it difficult to convince its citizens and others to obey the law.

Queen Mother-Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

The issues involved in recovering Nigerian artefacts abroad are manifold and should be carefully managed. What then is to be done?

1. The National Commission on Museums and Monuments should set up a Restitution Committee consisting of lawyers, art historians, art critics and representatives of traditional authorities. This body shall define the issues involved and suggest strategies and tactics for dealing with the question of restitution.

The country of T.O.Elias (6) and Rotimi Williams (7) has an abundance of legal talent which should be utilized. The Committee would look into jurisdictional questions such as whether Nigeria is best served by bringing cases in Nigerian courts or abroad where the illegal holders are.

2. The Restitution Committee should also determine whether it would not be more profitable to adopt a method of political negotiation rather than legal dispute settlement.

We are for negotiations but the intransigence of some holders of looted artefacts may make litigation unavoidable. We have suggested that a holder such as the Ethnology Museum of Berlin that holds 580 Benin artefacts could accept a solution that recognizes the ownership of Benin in all the artefacts and attributes 290 artefacts to Berlin on permanent loan and 290 to Benin on the understanding that each side could borrow artefacts from the other for exhibitions.

3. All cooperation agreements with non-Nigerian museums, especially those from countries illegally holding Nigerian artefacts, should be reviewed. In this context, attention should be given to training arrangements made with such museums to determine whether, after 50 years of independence, Nigeria cannot afford its own training programmes and courses for future museum officials. The impression created that training courses are offered in exchange for non-insistence on the return of Nigerian artefacts cannot be dismissed easily.

4. The NCMM should provide a brief account of what efforts have been made since Independence to recover Nigerian artefacts unlawfully held abroad.

5. A website should be established where restitution matters can be discussed and information made available to the public.

6. Nigeria’s demand for the return of her looted, stolen or illegally removed artefacts should be brought to the attention of the public in the countries concerned.

7. The NCMM should issue simple brochures that explain Nigeria’s position on matters of restitution.

8. It would be useful to have a list of the most wanted restitution objects, with indications of the names of holders and the locations of the Nigerian artworks.

9. Needless to say, Nigeria must coordinate its policies and strategies with African States and others, such as Greece, Italy, Peru and Turkey that are interested in restitution matters. The experience of these countries could be helpful.

The success of Nigeria in recovering her looted, stolen or illegally removed artefacts will largely depend on how she presents the issues and how she is perceived by others as determined to use all necessary means to secure them. Nobody, including the Western holders, disputes that these artefacts are Nigerian and that they were removed under dubious circumstances and through the use of violence and deceit. Statements and declarations are no doubt necessary but they must be followed by concrete actions that indicate a strong will to achieve the stated aim. A great nation cannot afford to appear as merely making strongstatements for domestic public consumption.

“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.”

Ekpo Eyo(8)

Kwame Opoku. 17 July 2012.


1.Introductory Note to the catalogue of the exhibition Benin Kings
and Rituals, Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck Publishers, 2007, p.13.

2Statement on Controversial Donation of Looted Benin Art Annex I

3K.Opoku, “Blood Antiquities in Respectable Havens: Looted Benin Artefacts Donated to American Museum,”

4. Ibid.

5. F. Shyllon. “Negotiations for the Return of Nok Sculptures from Nigeria – An Unrighteous Conclusion,”



8Ekpo Eyo,From Shrines to ShowcasesMasterpieces of Nigerian Art, 2010, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, Abuja. p.23





Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of someof the places where the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. The museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such asVölkerkundemuseum, Vienna has closed since some 10 years the African section where the Benin artefacts were, apparently due to repair work.

Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.

Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life 22
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 900.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167.



Those interested in knowing where these masterpieces are may consult the following list compiled from indications in ‘Masterpieces of Nigerian Art’. We mention here only those masterpieces mentioned in this book. There are many other excellent pieces of Nigerian artworks in Western museums which are not mentioned here.Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France.
Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, Switzerland.
Dept. of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland, USA
British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, USA.
National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institutions, Washington, USA.
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, USA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
Museum Rietberg, Zürich, Switzerland.
Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, USA.
Volkerkunde Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London, United Kingdom.
New Orleans Museum of Arts, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.
Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut, New Haven, USA.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, USA.

Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, Indiana, USA.


July 19th, 2012

Posted In: Dr. Kwame Opoku writings about looted cultural objects

Le masque de Ka Nefer Nefer revient hanter un antiquaire

Un musée du Missouri avait acheté un précieux masque funéraire auprès d’une galerie chic de Genève. Les Etats-Unis affirment que l’objet a été volé puis recyclé via les Ports Francs, il y a quinze ans, mais les preuves manquent

Ce matin du 31 mai 1954, alors qu’il fouille le site de Sakkarah depuis des mois et que l’espoir d’une découverte l’abandonne, un étrange sentiment envahit l’archéologue Zakaria Ghoneim. «Cela semble extraordinaire, mais j’eus soudain le sentiment que cette pyramide avait une personnalité», racontera-t-il plus tard dans son livre, «The Buried Pyramid». L’égyptologue avance accroupi dans une galerie inviolée depuis 30 siècles. «En nous relevant et en dressant nos torches, un spectacle merveilleux nous attendait. » Au centre de la chambre funéraire trône un magnifique sarcophage d’albâtre doré, pâle et translucide. Le tombeau abrite les restes d’une femme. Elle porte un diadème de verre, et le haut de son corps est recouvert d’un magnifique masque de lin et de plâtre peint. Zakaria Ghoneim la baptise Ka Nefer Nefer, ou «Ka la double beauté».

La malédiction de Ka

Zakaria Goneim

La découverte est extraordinaire. Scientifiques et journalistes accourent du monde entier pour l’admirer. Zakaria Ghoneim rejoue la scène devant les caméras. Il est même pressenti pour prendre la direction du musée du Caire. Mais quatre ans plus tard, en 1959, la carrière du célèbre archéologue égyptien est brisée net. Accusé de pillage et de trafic d’antiquités, Zakaria Ghoneim se suicide en se jetant dans le Nil. Restauré en 1966, le masque finit quant à lui dans les réserves du musée du Caire, où il porte le numéro 6119, boîte 6. Ka Nefer Nefer apparaît une dernière fois lors d’un inventaire en 1973, puis tombe dans l’oubli.

Vingt-cinq ans plus tard, le masque resurgit mystérieusement dans une galerie chic des rues basses de Genève. La boutique, Phoenix Ancient Art, appartient à un riche homme d’affaires d’origine libanaise, Suleiman Aboutaam. En mars 1998, le galeriste et son fils Hicham signent la vente du masque au Musée de Saint Louis, aux Etats-Unis, pour 499 000 dollars (720 000 francs de l’époque). Puis la malédiction frappe à nouveau. Six mois après la vente, Suleiman Aboutaam et son épouse disparaissent dans les eaux glacées de la Nouvelle-Ecosse lors du crash du vol SR111.

L’histoire de Ka Nefer Nefer, qui rebondit aujourd’hui à l’occasion d’un procès aux Etats-Unis, est exemplaire des trajectoires troubles qu’ont suivies ces dernières décennies quantité de biens archéologiques, exhumés dans des conditions parfois suspectes tout autour du monde pour être dispersés via la Suisse sur le très lucratif marché des antiquités. Genève a longtemps joué le rôle de plaque tournante dans ces trafics d’œuvres pillées. Ce n’est qu’en 2005 qu’est entrée en vigueur la loi sur le transfert des biens culturels (LTBC), qui punit l’acquisition, l’importation ou la vente de trésors archéologiques volés. Avant cette date, les trafiquants jouissaient en Suisse d’une impunité totale. A tel point que le pays était devenu le lieu de passage obligé des pièces volées. C’est dans les Ports Francs de Genève que ces objets aux origines louches retrouvaient soudain un pedigree permettant leur vente dans les plus prestigieuses maisons d’enchères. Ceux-ci mentionnaient souvent un «collectionneur suisse», aussi riche qu’anonyme.

C’est bien ce qui se serait passé dans le cas du masque de Ka Nefer Nefer. En 2005, un ancien gardien de musée hollandais reconverti dans la traque d’œuvres volées, Ton Cremers, lance l’alerte sur un forum Internet spécialisé qui réunit des policiers et des responsables de musées. Il fait état d’informations confiées par une «personne associée de près à la disparition du masque».

La «route suisse»

Ali et Hicham Aboutaam

Ton Cremers affirme que l’objet, volé au musée du Caire à une date inconnue, a suivi la «route suisse» habituelle, via les Ports Francs, jusqu’aux «tristement célèbres Aboutaam». Il désigne ainsi Suleiman et ses deux fils, Ali et Hicham, qui ont repris Phoenix Ancient Art après la disparition de leur père. Actifs entre Genève et New York, les Libanais jouissent d’une réputation sulfureuse dans le milieu. Le nom d’Hicham Aboutaam, notamment, a été mentionné aux Etats-Unis et en Egypte dans des affaires de trafic d’antiquités. Ton Cremers adresse une copie de son message à Jean-Robert Gisler, spécialiste des biens culturels au sein de la police fédérale, ainsi qu’à Interpol et à un agent du FBI.

Le dossier paraît s’enliser, mais en 2011, les autorités américaines passent à l’attaque. Dans une procédure rarissime, le gouvernement fédéral ordonne la confiscation du masque pour procéder à sa restitution à l’Egypte. Mais le Musée de Saint Louis s’y oppose. S’engage alors une longue procédure devant un tribunal du Missouri. La plainte du gouvernement accuse les Aboutaam d’avoir organisé le transfert du masque et déguisé sa provenance. Lors de la vente au musée américain, Suleiman Aboutaam avait assuré que le masque provenait d’une collection privée, réunie dans les années 60. La piste se perdait au hasard d’une adresse à Cologny, et la date ne collait pas avec l’inventaire qui recensait le masque au Caire en 1973.

Disparu, mais pas volé

Le verdict est tombé jeudi dernier. Dans une ultime décision, le juge a débouté le gouvernement américain et donné raison au musée. En substance, la Cour maintient que si les autorités égyptiennes sont incapables d’éclaircir les circonstances de la disparition du masque – et donc de prouver son vol –, l’objet n’a pas à être rendu. A Genève, le directeur de Phoenix Ancient Art, Michael Hedqvist, se félicite de ce jugement «très important». «Durant toutes ces années, les autorités impliquées ont eu largement le temps de se pencher sur l’origine de cet objet», constate-t-il. Or, aucun élément nouveau ne serait apparu établissant que le masque a bien été volé. La vente de l’objet s’étant déroulée avant l’entrée en vigueur de la nouvelle loi sur le trafic de biens pillés, le directeur comme les frères Aboutaam n’ont de toute manière pas grand-chose à craindre en Suisse. A moins que d’autres affaires ne les rattrapent.

En avril dernier, Le Temps racontait comment des inspecteurs des douanes étaient tombés sur un magnifique sarcophage dans les Ports Francs de Genève. L’objet aurait été proposé par Phoenix Ancient Art au milliardaire et philanthrope Jean-Claude Gandur. Celui-ci aurait décliné au vu de ses origines douteuses. Alertée par la Suisse, la Turquie réclame le retour du sarcophage. Une enquête a été ouverte pour violation de la LTBC. Michael Hedqvist n’a pas souhaité s’exprimer sur cette affaire.

USA vs Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer – First Amended Complaint

USA vs The Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer – Ton Cremers 2005 email

Le masque de Ka Nefer Nefer revient hanter un antiquaire |

July 1st, 2012

Posted In: Saint Louis Art Museum