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Statue was reportedly illegally smuggled to Mexico.  Source: INAH

Experts Claim Artifact Ceremonially Returned to Nigeria is Fake


A bronze sculpture seized at a Mexican airport last week, and hastily returned to Nigeria, is now claimed to be fake.

Last week the BBC reported on a supposedly ancient artifact believed to have been stolen from Nigeria's south-western Ife city that was seized by customs officers at the main airport in Mexico City. Speaking compassionately about the controversial object, Dr Diego Prieto, the head of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, said the “beautiful bronze piece” was important to Nigerian heritage and should be returned to its home.

While Mexican officials didn’t reveal the smuggler’s identity, the foreign ministry said the artifact, which depicts a cross-legged sitting man wearing a head dress and holding an object, had been illegally exported and that the sculpture was of ancient “Yoruba origin”. Aghast at the attempted theft of this allegedly African historical piece, Julián Ventura Valero, the deputy secretary of foreign affairs, said the commercialization of archaeological pieces undermines the integrity of cultures and that last week this particular artifact was handed over to Nigeria's ambassador to Mexico, Aminu Iyaw, in a special ceremony.

And whilst these sentiments and intentions are praiseworthy, according to arts specialists speaking up today, what the Nigerian ambassador was “ceremonially” handed, was no more than a cheap fake.

Experts have now claimed this to be a ‘cheap fake’. (Image: INAH)

Experts have now claimed this to be a ‘cheap fake’. (Image: INAH)

No Comment So Far On The eBay Quality Fake

This whole scenario began last week when artifact specialists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History identified the object as being 6th-century from the Yoruba kingdom in southwestern Nigeria. The Mexican government said the piece had been exported illegally, but today, in an article published in The Art Newspaper, Julien Volper, a curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren in Belgium says the object is “a fake of the worst quality,” and that many similar objects can be procured “on eBay.”

Furthermore, a Paris-based dealer told The Art Newspaper that the work is “an airport-quality rough copy” and that this story is a “ridiculous shame” for Mexico who hastily managed the repatriation to Nigeria, as governments race to give back African artifacts in what is described as a phase of “fashionable restitution,” with no care for legal and historical facts.

Several experts challenge the assertion that the piece is a genuine artifact. (Image: INAH)

Several experts challenge the assertion that the piece is a genuine artifact. (Image: INAH)

The Controversial Race To Repatriate Artifacts

According to the The Art Newspaper report the incident described above is an example of a country rushing to restitute objects, and this “is a big part of the problem,” according to Yves-Bernard Debie, a Brussels-based lawyer specializing in cultural property and trade. All things considered it is of little surprise that now, in contrast to the pomp and ceremony exhibited last week, Mexican authorities did not respond to The Art Newspaper’s invitation to comment and neither did The Embassy of Mexico in Nigeria respond to a request for comment.

According to the most commonly cited figures from a 2007 UNESCO forum, “90% to 95% of sub-Saharan cultural artifacts are housed outside Africa” with many having being taken during the colonial period and now populate the shelves of museums across Europe and North America. Museums around the world are currently struggling over how to deal with African art in their collections and according to an August 2019 NPR report officials in Germany and The Netherlands are planning to return artifacts taken from Africa during the colonial period. However, Director of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, Stéphane Martin, told Europe 1 in a radio interview that museums should not be the “hostages of the unhappy history of colonialism”.

While the argument over repatriation becoming more entangled, a modicum of sense was spoken in a 2015 New York Times article which addressed the return of cultural objects to their country of origin. It says there are “clear-cut cases” for repatriation and that one of those is when communities demand repatriation of funerary objects or human remains based on spiritual beliefs, but as for less important sacred historical items “obtained” during colonialism, internationally accepted perimeters will be much more difficult to define.

Top image: Nigerian ‘artifact’ was thought to be illegally smuggled to Mexico.  Source: INAH

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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