Ahead of an African art sale due to take place at Christie’s Paris salesroom in June, an art historian has claimed that the auction house needs to reconsider selling a pair of sculptures taken from Nigeria during the country’s civil war.
Chika Okeke-Agulu, a professor of indigenous, modern, and contemporary African and African Diaspora art history and theory at Princeton University, said in an Instagram post over the weekend that the pair of Igbo objects, called alusi or “sacred sculptures,” were removed from Nigeria by Jacques Kerchache, a French collector of African art objects who died in 2001. The two sculptures, which are being sold together as one lot, carry an estimate of €250,000–€350,000 ($283,000–$396,000), and are set to hit the block as part of the “Art d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique du Nord” auction on June 29.
Okeke-Agulu took issue with how Christie’s had phrased the original provenance of the Igbo sculptures as having been “acquired in situ” between 1968–69. The art historian said they were taken from Nri-Awka area of Nigeria, about 30 minutes away from where he grew up, and that they had been removed during the country’s civil war, which was fought between the government and Republic of Biafra. The republic had seceded from Nigeria as part of an independence movement by primarily Igbo people, and the conflict lasted from 1967 to 1970.
“[Christie’s] did its supposed due diligence by stating that Jacques Kerchache had acquired them in situ,” Okeke-Agulu told ARTnews in a phone interview. “As someone who survived the Nigerian-Biafran War as a baby, this is something that is so close to my heart. It was the most devastating war in post-colonial Africa at the time. A lot of my mates died because of the starvation used by the Nigerian government to bring the runaway republic to its knees.”
Christie’s did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Okeke-Agulu has previously written about the plundering of Igbo sculptures as part of an op-ed for the New York Times in 2017. In that article, he mentioned that his mother, upon looking at a catalogue of Igbo sculptures now in European collections, recounted how “the disappearance of similar sculptures from our hometown shrines in southeastern Nigeria, and the end of the associated festivals, was one of her most painful memories of that war.” Since the publication of the Times piece, Okeke-Agulu has taken it upon himself to further investigate the removal of similar Igbo sculptures from Nigeria, with an emphasis on the collection of Kerchache, whom he called “one of the most famous collectors of African art in Europe.”
While his research is still ongoing, Okeke-Agulu felt he had to speak up after coming across a Quartz Africa article about the Christie’s sale, which also highlighted Benin Bronze plaques on offer. “No one should be selling those objects right now precisely because these are blood art as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “There are blood diamonds, and this is what I would call blood art.”
Okeke-Agulu continued, “Art that was expropriated during that period—and you have documentation of that—should not be sold until someone in Nigeria can make a case for its return. Public sales of these objects should stop. They can’t go on with that sale.”
Since the publication of Okeke-Agulu’s 2017 op-ed, calls to repatriate African objects have intensified. A 2019 report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy called on France to return many of the objects in the national collection, igniting controversy in a nation where such surveys are rare. French President Emmanuel Macron later said he agreed with Sarr and Savoy’s recommendations.
A loophole may explain why Christie’s is able to sell the objects. Okeke-Agulu pointed to a 1970 UNESCO Convention, which prohibits the illicit import, export, and transfer of cultural property, but applies only to objects taken after a nation had signed on to the convention. Since the objects were taken between 1968 and 1969, they would not be subject to the convention.
Yet Okeke-Agulu said that the convention is need of revision—the convention’s parameters are arbitrary, he said, and they must be expanded. He said, “When enough voices call a law unjust—or, in this case, convention—the powers that be might decide ‘It’s indefensible. We need to change this,’” he said, adding, “we’ll see what happens, but this matter is not going away.”