Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sotheby's and the Monolith from Nigeria

Here we go again! So, I am looking at the catalogue of Sotheby's auction sale next month and I saw this really wonderful example of the famous stone monoliths from the Ejagham region of south-eastern Nigeria (auction estimate: 324, 000-520,000 US$). Really sublime piece, just like many of these mysterious sculptures that date back to the 15th century. But the real surprise for me is the information about the monolith's provenance--in other words, how and when it traveled from its original home in Nigeria to the auction block in Paris. The catalogue simply states that it was "acquired in 1978" by someone called Alain Javelaud, and from there to a "private" collection that has now put it up for sale. 1978? I thought the 1970 UNESCO Convention (on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) made it illegal to sell or acquire works like this monolith? The big question is this: how come Mr. Javelaud acquired this in 1978, from where? Or is the Sotheby's provenance record for this sculpture incomplete; in other words, did Mr. Javelaud acquire it from another sources outside of Nigeria in 1978? Sotheby's could do well to fill in this critical but missing information; otherwise, they should put a little note on the sculpture: CAVEAT EMPTOR!

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