Nok terracottas are proof that an ancient civilisation once existed in Nigeria. Now they are at the centre of a multi-million-dollar, globe-spanning underground industry – and once again, Nigeria is losing out.
The art dealer is getting a little more relaxed. He is talking up his credentials, and mentions “my friends Peter Breunig and Nicole Rupp.” Breunig and Rupp are two German archaeology professors from Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Between 2005 and 2020 they led an excavation project in Nigeria, which was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). But while digging for ancient history, the project opened up new wounds.
Enter the Germans
It’s hot in Abuja. 42 degrees Celsius and the air conditioners are working hard. On the second floor of an office tower in Utako, Zachary Gundu enters the meeting room. Gundu is a professor of Archaeology at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. He is a prominent academic; amongst other positions, he was on the council of the World Archaeological Congress.
Everyone knows that archaeologists in Nigeria urgently need international involvement and academic cooperation, he says. But he is not at all happy with how the German team went about it. They did not want to work with Nigerian researchers at the universities in Zaria and Jos, he said. Eventually, “they had to be forced” to work together.
It was only in 2012 that local researchers could get involved in the German project. But even then, according to Gundu, Nigerian professors were given “no significant work.” Even more shocking to Professor Gundu is that the German team seemed happy to work with illegal diggers and criminal art dealers. Gundu is not alone in his criticism.
In 2012, June 20, 48 Nigerian archaeologists from five universities signed a document in which they criticised, among other things, “how the German team took advantage of the ‘institutional weakness’ of the NCMM” to exclude Nigerian archaeologists “from the exchange of knowledge and participation in the project.”
They talk of the “unethical practices of the German team,” “the manipulation of local communities,” support for activities “leading to the illegal excavation of archaeological sites” and “unsupervised export” of Nok terracottas. The document was written in support of the actions of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria against the DFG project.
Gundu says that Western intellectuals and international organisations should be collaborating against what he describes as a “post-colonial injustice.” “But Africa is often misused as a laboratory where European scientists just walk in, experiment, and collect data with which they can verify their ideas about the continent,” says Gundu. And then these scientists – people like Breunig – are then considered to be the global experts on Africa. “He’s now regarded worldwide as the Nok expert.”
The archaeological scandal was covered in Nigerian media, which described the German’s approach as “looting” and “robbery.” But in Germany, there was hardly any coverage. Instead, the exhibition, Nok: An Origin of African Culture, which was shown in 2013/14 at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, was widely reviewed. “How many Nigerians could visit the exhibition? Wouldn’t it have been decent to hold such an important exhibition in Nigeria first?” asks Gundu.
His fierce criticism of the Frankfurt project got Gundu into trouble. He received anonymous threats. Did the professor anger powerful opponents in the NCMM? Was he targeted by the “dealers’ cartel,” as he suspects? There are lots of suspicions and rumours.
But things got even more dangerous for Peter Breunig, the German professor. On the morning of February 22, 2017, he was working with his German team and about 80 local employees at an excavation site near the village of Janjala. Suddenly some men with Kalashnikovs appeared. They kidnapped Breunig and one other German man, Johannes Behringer, and demanded a ransom of N60million ($160,000) for their release. They were released three days later after a ransom was paid.
The German team immediately withdrew from the Nok territory. Their research station there – complete with colorful roundhouses, a big generator, and a fish pool – was left orphaned, until it was handed over to the NCMM in January 2020.
Digging up a difficult history
Breunig, 68-years-old, sits in his big, light office in the main building of the Goethe University. The professor has an excellent view of the Frankfurt skyline. Many things are clearer now.
There is no doubt that he has secured himself a place in the modern history books of the Nok civilisation. His research has added greatly to what we know about ancient society. His headline conclusion, after 15 years of research, was that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a spectacular Nok Kingdom. He found no palaces for anything like that.
Instead, Breunig believes the Nok lived in “small mobile farmer groups.” He thinks the terracottas are somehow related to graves, although no bones were found. Maybe the acidity in the earth had decomposed everything.
Breunig is “partly thankful” to his Nigerian colleague Gundu for his sharp criticism. Without it, the universities in Jos and Zaria would never have been involved at all. In the beginning, NCCM, the museum’s authority, was against any collaboration with local universities – probably because they wanted to install their own people on the project, Breunig speculates.
But he reacts angrily against the accusations made against him by the Nigerian press. “Pure lies! Looting takes place on a wide scale, but never by us,” he said. Each find was carefully documented and, as agreed, returned to Nigeria after the research in the high-tech laboratory in Germany was concluded. In total, his project excavated 100 large terracottas and 3,000 smaller fragments, all of which were later sent to the National Museum in Kaduna.
Breunig knows exactly who Umaru Potiskum is. In fact, he is “very grateful” to the art dealer, and says that without his support the team would have found far less. But he says Potiskum did not stay with the project for long. Potiskum found far more lucrative opportunities in trading antiques.
It is clear that the line between archeologists and looters is thin, and that the two professions in some ways depend upon each other. Both are looking at what each other is digging up, and whoever wins the race to excavate a precious artifact determines its destiny.
Some end up in the well-guarded hiding places of collectors, and others in small exhibits like in Kaduna. Then there are the ones that end up in the most visited museums in the world.
The smugglers’ charter
It is a six-hour flight from Abuja to Paris, to visit the Louvre Museum. Ten million people visit the Louvre every year. Here, in the Pavillon des Sessions, two Nok terracottas are displayed. They are as impressive as they are scandalous.
According to Trafficking Culture, an international consortium, which analyses illegally acquired art, French officials purchased the works in 1998 from a Belgian dealer for a moderate 2.5 million francs (about $450,000 today). Immediately afterward, Nigeria’s military government demanded their return, claiming they were illegally removed from the country.
But the French president at the time, Jacques Chirac, was having none of it. He considered himself to be a great lover of African art and was in the process of setting up a modern ethnographic museum in Paris which would bear his own name: the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (it is from this very museum that Congolese activist Emery Diyabanza removed a 19th-century Chadian funeral earlier this year, exclaiming as he did so that he had “come to claim back the stolen property of Africa, property that was stolen under colonialism”).
Chirac is said to have spoken personally with the newly elected Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1999, and they made a deal. France would recognise Nigeria as the rightful owner of the Nok sculptures. In return, Nigeria would loan the terracottas for 25 years to France, with the option to extend.
Folarin Shyllon, a law professor at the University of Ibadan, called the contracts a “totally unfair smuggler’s charter.” He said that when they bought the terracottas, the French must have known they were looted antiques. Buying them anyway was evident of France’s “insistent chauvinism,” Shyllon wrote in the journal Art, Antiquity and Law; and allowing France to keep them showed Nigeria’s “complete lack of national pride.” The deal was “inexplicable” and effectively granted carte blanche for the looting of Nigerian cultural treasures.
Today, things are a little different in France, at least superficially. In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron’s government released the ‘Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics,’ which argued that unlawfully acquired cultural property should be returned to their lawful owners. The market reacted swiftly: that year, auction houses sold 40per cent less in the ‘Tribal Art Market’ category than in the year before.
But it is still possible to purchase Nok terracottas in Paris. In fact, it is easy.
For more than a hundred years, the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris has been a global hub for trade with antique Africana. In the first half of the 20th century, the European avant-garde marveled at “primitive negro and tribal art” as it was called at that time. The artist Picasso lived here and acquired his own collection of African sculptures. Today there are exhibitions worldwide in which his paintings are shown next to African masks and figures. The similarities are no coincidence.
The ‘Tribal Art’ galleries in the quartier continue to do good business. Not a single one of our previous interview questions were answered positively. We come as customers. In one shop window, on a pedestal and spotlit, rests a woman’s head made of clay. It is unmistakably a Nok terracotta. The gallery owner quotes 13,000 euros for the figurine ($15,000).
The price, he says, is “very attractive.” No, he does not have all the necessary documentation to show exactly where it came from, although there is a certificate of authenticity showing that it is 2,500 years old, along with the results of a thermoluminescence analysis.
The gallery owner had bought the Nok terracotta in West Africa, but not in Nigeria – the country is “far too dangerous.” Instead, he mentions Togo and Benin. The terracottas are only going to become more valuable in the coming decades, he says, as the history of Nok becomes more familiar to a wider audience.
Four of six Africana galleries visited at random in Saint-Germain-des-Prés sell Nok terracottas of different sizes and quality. Some are sold without export certificates or proof of provenance, and without scientific analyses to date them. The prices range from 4,000 euros to 20,000 euros. And if you can’t get to Paris, you can also buy them online (at one point the Barakat Gallery website was selling a Nok sculpture for 225,000 euros).
The investigation was supported by the German journalism association “Hard work and courage” and its Cartographers Program for journalists.
The Yale connection
One of the world’s largest Nok collections outside Nigeria can be found in New Haven on the east coast of the United States. The elite Yale University owns dozens of Nok sculptures, some of which are exhibited at the Yale University Art Gallery on Chapel Street. For the noble university’s image, the Nok terracottas are a delicate matter. Big names and rich donors are involved. That’s why the Art Gallery reacts extremely nervously to a visit and questions by journalists.
The New Haven Register, one of the oldest daily newspapers in the US, published one version about the origin of the Nok sculptures in Yale. It reports that the pieces come from Bayard Rustin’s collection. Along with Martin Luther King, Rustin was one of the icons of the black civil rights movement in the US. In 1963, for example, he organized the march on Washington. According to the New Haven Register, Rustin himself acquired the Nok terracottas in the 1950s and 1960s in Nigeria. This is quite possible because Rustin was a friend of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, whom he had met in the USA before Nigeria’s independence. Azikiwe provided him with contacts in Nigeria.
After Rustin’s death, the Nok terracottas came into the possession of entrepreneur Joel and SusAnna Grae, who donated the collection to the Yale Art Gallery in 2010. Grae had become rich in the nuclear industry, among others.
But as usual, history is more complex than a smooth narrative about it. Therefore, who researches will learn that by far not all of the Nok terracottas at Yale University are from Rustin’s collection. Some gallery staff finds that version “frustratingly over-simplistic,” because the Nok terracottas come from different collectors and many of them have difficult backgrounds.
Around three dozen Nok terracottas from Yale, are listed by the Gallery as “antiquities and archaeological material with provenance documentation gaps.” It could even be that some of the Nok figurines are quite young or forged, from the 1990s. Some pieces are connected to a convicted forger, a dealer from New York with Senegalese background. A gallery employee says, on the basis of the Nok terracottas, Yale students could learn much about “robbery, forgery, and corruption.” Since 2020, the Yale University Art Gallery has installed one post for a provenance researcher, who still has a lot of work to do in order to find out about the true origins of the objects.
The Internet makes the process of tracking down the provenance of cultural artifacts a little easier. But it can be a curse at the same time, says Sophie Delepierre. She works for the International Council of Museums, based in Paris, which is an umbrella organization for more than 47,000 museums. She is Belgian and heads the Heritage
Protection and Capacity Building department.
On the one hand, online databases bring more transparency. On the other hand, online platforms are “a new nightmare.” Nobody can provide a complete overview of these “super-fast businesses worldwide.” Therefore, she says, online markets like Ebay must be responsible for what they trade – just like with ivory.
In the year 2000, her department for the first time published its Red List, which specifies art and artifacts in which trade is restricted or illegal. The list came into existence through a collaboration with UNESCO, the World Customs Organisation, and Interpol. “The list does not show single stolen pieces, but objects which stand for a whole problematic context, for instance, the Nok terracotta,” says Delepierre.
The existence of the Red List means that dealers, collectors, and museums cannot plead ignorance: they know that all Nok terracottas need export certificates and authorisations from their country of origin. So they cannot be surprised when they are later asked to return the object or provide restitution.
“The Red List hangs all around the world like a red flag in airports, police stations, and at customs,” explained Delepierre. But the illegal art market reacts very flexibly to prohibitions, with new trading routes, clever transport methods, and sophisticated fake documents. “We should not be naive. We live in a market economy organised world, and museums are also an industry,” says Sophie Delepierre.
Did her employer, the International Council of Museums, ever kick out a member for unethical behaviour? “Not as far as I know,” she says.
At the Abuja Hotel, art dealer Umaru Potiskum says goodbye. He makes one last promise, telling us that, in the future, he can acquire even more than just antique Nok terracottas: centuries-old Ajami scripts, millennia-old Calabar ceramics. Anything. No problem, he says, and disappears into the night.
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