Saturday, June 6, 2020

Biafran War loots in Christie's Auction Sale

Wall plaque, Edo Kingdom

On June 28, 2020, Christies, reputedly the world’s premier auction house will have a sale of art from Africa, Oceania and North America. I raise my voice against this sale. As the magazine Quartz has just reported, major auction houses are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to sell art objects from Africa that are part of colonial-era looting of the continent’s cultural heritage. Among the Christies lot, for instance, is one copper alloy plaque (above) that must have been among the looted objects from the Benin palace. It is shameful that any self-respecting auction house is still involved in the sale of royal Benin objects from that 1897 rape of the palace by British soldiers

Alusi figures from Nri-Awka area, Eastern Nigeria

But here is what I find even more vexing about Christie's sale. 

In a 2017 op-ed article in the New York Times, I wrote about widespread looting of art from Eastern Nigeria during the Biafran War (1967-70), and that my mother still mourns the overnight disappearance of countless sculptures from communal shrines in my hometown, Umuoji, in Anambra State. These art raids from all indications were sponsored by dealers and their client collectors mostly based in Europe and the US. So, apart from the royal Benin wall plaque, the June Christie's auction includes two impressive alusi (sacred sculptures, above) said to have been acquired in 1968-69 in situ by Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001). That is, Mr. Kerchache acquired these sculptures in the Nri-Awka area (a half-hour drive from my hometown) during the darkest years of the Biafran War.  

Dear Christie's, let’s be clear about the provenance of these sculptures you want to sell. While between 500,000 and three million civilians, including babies like me, were dying in the thousands of kwashiorkor and starvation inside Biafra; and while young French doctors were in the war zone establishing what we now know as Doctors Without Borders, their compatriot, Mr. Kerchache, went there to buy up my people’s cultural heritage, including the two sculptures you are now offering for sale. I write this so no one, including Christie's and any potential buyer of these loots from Biafra can claim ignorance of their true provenance. These artworks are stained with the blood of Biafra’s children. Caveat Emptor!

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