Art theft increases in Africa

Organised criminal groups are stealing an increasing number of art treasures from Africa and are placing them for sale in apparently legitimate channels in western art auctions.

Ancient art treasures from Nigeria, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Mali have inexplicably disappeared, appearing in catalogues in London and Paris auction houses. With an absence of documentation, it is extremely difficult to ascertain as to whether a piece is legitimate or not. Sotheby’s, for instance, insists that it is the onus of the seller to make sure that pieces have been legally exported and assume no responsibility in cases of illegality.

Since Napoleon’s time, Egypt has been subjected to plundering of its national heritage, and even recently, a top New York dealer was jailed for being implicated in robberies of historical artefacts from Egypt. However, it is not only objects from Ancient Egypt that are attracting the dealers. The ancient civilisations of Ghana (8th to 12th centuries), Mali (12th to 15th centuries), Songhay (15th to 16th centuries) and Benin (16th to 19th centuries) produced wonderful works in gold and precious stones which make these countries the centre of attention for criminal organisations with international contacts.

The huge commercial value for objects whose value is not understood by impoverished rural populations, members of whom are only too happy to make easy money by selling what they consider as useless decorative objects to outsiders willing to part with good money.

Coupled with widespread corruption among local officials, habituated to a culture of commissions, it is not difficult for a determined dealer to obtain a wealth of important art treasures, to the detriment of the cultural patrimony of the host nation.

The best way to clamp down on this illegal activity would be for a more careful inspection of applications for licences to carry out archaeological digs in areas where there are known to have been important finds.

At an international level, there is a UN Convention, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”, established in 1970. However, while the west African countries mentioned, along with Egypt, Spain, Greece and France, are members, the three countries where most illegal trading is carried out – the USA, UK and Germany – are not and have refused to join for the last thirty years.


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