A Nigerian commission has called for the cancellation of Monday’s auction in Paris of sacred Nigerian statues that it alleges were stolen.
Christie’s auction house has defended the sale, saying the artworks were legitimately acquired and the sale will go ahead.
In recent years, French courts have consistently ruled in favour of auction houses whose sales of sacred objects, such as Hopi tribal masks, were contested by rights groups and representatives of the tribes.
A Princeton scholar, Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, alongside Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, raised alarm earlier this month that the objects were looted during the Biafran war in the late 1960s.
Christie’s wrote earlier this month to the Nigerian commission, saying the sale would go ahead.
Okeke-Agulu, who is a member of the Igbo tribe, said the objects were taken through “an act of violence” from his home state of Anambra and that they should not be sold. An online petition with over 2,000 signatures is demanding that the auction be halted.
The petition said, “As the world awakens to the reality of systemic racial injustice and inequality, thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we must not forget that it is not just the Black body, but also Black culture, identity and especially art that is being misappropriated.”
It claims that between 1967 and 1970, as Nigeria’s Biafran civil-war, raged, and while more than 3 million civilians were dying, a renowned European treasure hunter was in Biafra “on a hunting spree for our cultural heritage.”
In a statement to AP Monday, Christie’s said: “these objects are being lawfully sold having been publicly exhibited and previously sold over the last decades prior to Christie’s involvement.”
While the auction house said it recognized the “nuanced and complex debates around the cultural property,” it said that public sales should go ahead of objects like these to stop the black market flourishing.
Paris has a long history of collecting and selling tribal artefacts, tied to its colonial past in Africa, and to Paris-based groups in the 1960s, such as the “Indianist” movement that celebrated indigenous tribal cultures.
Interest in tribal art in Paris was revived in the early 2000s following two high-profile — and highly lucrative — sales in Paris of tribal art owned by late collectors Andre Breton and Robert Lebel.
Controversy over sales can be a double-edged sword for an auction house. In the past, such contested sales have served to raise the ultimate selling price of the objects going under the hammer because of media interest, but there have also been instances where buyers have been deterred from purchasing artefacts over fears of a backlash.