Outside it has become night. In advanced of the windows of one of Abuja’s grandest hotels, the basin shines azure blue. Finally, the buzz rings. It is the hotel’s advanced desk, announcement a guest.
The man who comes into the room, hours backward for the appointed appointment, is alleged Umaru Potiskum. He is an art dealer. He’s cutting a aphotic dejected dashiki and is abounding of self-confidence, but is additionally a little suspicious. His is, afterwards all, an underground, actionable business.
“Here I accept met abounding customers,” he says — buyers from Belgium, France, Spain, England and Germany. He shows us what he’s selling, anxiously unwrapping two aerial terracotta statues from a allotment of cloth.
The eyes gazing out from the age-old adobe are triangular, archetypal of Nok figurines. Over the decades, bags of these figurines accept been taken out of Nigeria. Abounding are on affectation in some of the world’s best celebrated art galleries, including at the Louvre in Paris and Yale University. Abounding added are no best displayed, however, because their ancestry is questionable.
Anyone who wants to accept what drives this multimillion-dollar all-around barter charge go searching: in Abuja and Paris, in Frankfurt and New Haven. But the aboriginal stop is the Nok Valley.
One hundred and fifty kilometres northeast of Abuja, a brownish backcountry clue apprehension through the abundant blooming of the Nok Valley, arise a village. Mango and access copse and millet fields beleaguer about three dozen houses and mud huts. Children are active afterwards a hoop, while women babble beneath the adumbration of a tree.
It was here, in 1928, that a adopted miner allegedly apparent the aboriginal aged terracotta figure: a monkey head, 10cm high. As archaeologists digged further, they apparent the debris of an age-old culture, which, as per convention, they alleged afterwards the surrounding area: Nok.
From about 1500BCE — at the aforementioned time that age-old Greece was flourishing, the Mayan civilisation was developing and Egyptian pharaohs were atrociously accretion their authority — a awful developed association was overextension beyond the valley, encompassing an breadth the admeasurement of Portugal. It is the age-old accepted civilisation in West Africa, according to Archaeology magazine.
Between the years of 900BCE and 300BCE, the Nok produced a amazing cardinal of arresting adobe figurines, including elaborately stylised people, animals and fantasy creatures, adorned with ornaments, adornment and symbols. Abounding appeared to accept been active in shards. Alike today these figurines are a riddle: Why were they made? What did they mean? Why did so abounding arise to accept been advisedly burst and afresh buried?
Thousands of figurines accept been dug up. Today, it is accepting harder and harder to acquisition any added of them — authoritative the figurines all the added valuable.
At the Abuja hotel, Potiskum takes addition alcohol and starts talking numbers. His two figurines — a man’s arch and a beyond bronze of a woman — are added than 2000 years old, he claims, and any class assay will prove it. He accuse €2 000 for the man’s head, and claims that it can be awash to buyers across for 10 times that amount. The changeable baby goes for appreciably more.
These sums would assume ample to association in the Nok Valley, some of whom advice to acquisition and dig up the terracottas. They are paid €5 a day, at most; abounding access aloof €1 a day.
But that’s how it works, explains Nigeria’s Minister for Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed. Nigerian middlemen buy the Nok terracottas at antecedent for a pittance, and afresh advertise them on for a fortune. “We accept not yet done abundant to stop our own bodies and to argue them to assure their own cultural heritage,” he said.
Given the abridgement of another application opportunities, the accompaniment has begin this barter about absurd to ascendancy — abundant to the minister’s frustration. “These works ascertain our history. They ascertain who we are. Those who advertise our cultural ancestry abroad are harming Nigeria,” he said. He is additionally analytical of the all-embracing art market, which seems clumsy to stop the adulterous barter in Nok terracottas already they accept larboard Nigeria.
Mohammed does not accept an accessible job. Nigeria’s citizenry is about 190-million people, and they allege added than 500 languages. The country is a cautiously alloyed carpeting of religions and ethnicities and cultures, abounding abiding in emirates and kingdoms whose traditions amplitude aback for bags of years. Its borders are arbitrary, fatigued up by British colonisers, whose compassionate of bounded dynamics was bound at best. Arts and ability is one apparatus that the government has to accompany this assorted nation together, so it does not advice aback important cultural artefacts accumulate catastrophe up in added countries.
Potiskum knows a affair or two about those British colonists. His ancestor was a abutting aide of Bernhard Fagg, an English archaeologist who formed in the colonial administering in Nigeria from the 1940s to the 1960s. He was amenable for cogent the Western bookish apple about the anew apparent Nok culture, amazing them in the process. At the time, “Black Africa” was, in the Western world, broadly advised to be a acreage afterwards history; a “heart of darkness” aloof cat-and-mouse to be civilised. This allegory helped to legitimise the barbarous chains of the abstemious by Western colonists.
The actual actuality of the Nok ability challenged that racist myth. Today, in bookish circles, Fagg is still apparent as the abundant beat of Nok studies, or alike the “discoverer” of Nok culture. And in the Nok valley, in the apple of the aforementioned name, the abode area Fagg already lived is still standing. Sometimes tourists alike appear to attending at it. But if they appetite to apprehend nice things about Fagg, they had bigger not ask Beno Adamu, the apple chief.
Adamu’s abode is fabricated of bean and is amid at the access of the village, on the larboard side. Inside the house, the 75-year-old dignitary sits in a big, bendable armchair. His memories and ability alter abundantly from the versions in the history books. He dismisses the angle that the Nok terracottas were “discovered” by foreigners.
“We, Ham bodies actuality in Nok, attending aback at a long, continued history and accept consistently accepted these terracottas. Our grandfathers told us about them.” The Ham bodies had them in their shrines, houses and alike out in the fields as scarecrows — continued afore Fagg “discovered” them.
Adamu met Fagg a few times, aback he was a adolescent boy. He remembers: “Fagg asked the bodies to accompany their terracottas to his house. Which they did. Afresh he told them that the pieces would be worthless. They never saw their terracottas again. They were already packed.”
Adamu speaks aboveboard about what abounding bodies in the apple think: “We are warm-hearted people. We like to accept guests. But our treasures accept been taken abroad and we do not see them again. Today they are in England, Germany and France. Abounding bodies came here, selfish, and acclimated us as bargain labour. Afresh they abolished and cipher accurate us in our development. Not alike our own government. We accept not absolutely benefited from our abundant heritage.”
Almost every Nok terracotta biconcave over the aftermost 50 years has larboard Nigeria for the all-embracing art market. Aback talking to bounded government admiral in Kaduna State, area the Nok Basin is situated, it becomes bright that there are few systems in abode to accumulate them in the country.
The arch of prisons does not apperceive of any bedfellow who has been confined for actionable digging or smuggling of cultural artefacts. The badge arch says that his priorities are kidnappings, banditry and battle amid beasts herders and farmers. He does not accept time to anguish about the terracottas. The clearing bang-up has been to workshops about cultural ancestry and how to assure it, but has not yet confiscated any banned artefacts.
In the auberge room, Potiskum boasts: “Don’t worry, consign is no problem. Wherever I accept to deliver, I deliver. I aloof charge the address.” He knows the community people; bound guards in Lagos; an all-embracing aircraft aggregation that helps him. He can alike organise the consign through added West African countries such as Togo, Benin and Ghana. He has a well-functioning arrangement there.
And the consign papers? “I can get everything,” he promises. Never apperception that he is additionally a affiliate of the Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria, an organisation of art dealers that purports to assure Nigerian cultural heritage.
Potiskum says that it does not pay to abide aloft the law. He says he already handed over 72 Nok terracottas to the Civic Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), but has not apparent a distinct naira for them — admitting the government’s affiance to pay for rescued antiques. He claims that the NCMM owes him 65-million naira (about $170 000).
The art banker is accepting a little added relaxed. He is talking up his credentials, and mentions “my accompany Peter Breunig and Nicole Rupp”. Breunig and Rupp are two German archaeology advisers from Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Amid 2005 and 2020 they led an blasting activity in Nigeria, which was adjourned by the German Assay Foundation (DFG). But while digging for age-old history, the activity opened up new wounds.
It’s hot in Abuja: 42°C, and the air conditioners are alive hard. On the additional attic of an appointment belfry in Utako, Zachary Gundu enters the affair room. Gundu is a assistant of archaeology at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. He is a arresting academic; amid added positions, he was on the board of the Apple Archaeological Congress.
Everyone knows that archaeologists in Nigeria actively charge all-embracing captivation and bookish co-operation, he says. But he is not at all blessed with how the German aggregation went about it. They did not appetite to assignment with Nigerian advisers at the universities in Zaria and Jos, he said. Eventually, “they had to be forced” to assignment together.
It was abandoned in 2012 that bounded advisers could become complex in the German project. But alike then, according to Gundu, Nigerian advisers were accustomed “no cogent work”. Alike added abominable to Gundu is that the German aggregation seemed blessed to assignment with actionable diggers and bent art dealers.
Gundu is not abandoned in his criticism.
In 2012, 48 Nigerian archaeologists from bristles universities active a affidavit in which they criticised, amid added things, “how the German aggregation took advantage of the ‘institutional weakness’ of the NCMM” to exclude Nigerian archaeologists “from barter of ability and accord in the project”.
They allocution of the “unethical practices of the German team”, “the abetment of bounded communities”, abutment for activities “leading to the actionable blasting of archaeological sites” and “unsupervised export” of Nok terracottas.
Gundu says that Western intellectuals and all-embracing organisations should be accommodating adjoin what he describes as a “postcolonial injustice”.
“But Africa is generally abolished as a class area European scientists aloof airing in, agreement and aggregate abstracts with which they can verify their account about the continent,” says Gundu. And afresh these scientists — bodies like Breunig — are advised to be the all-around experts on Africa. “He’s now admired common as the Nok expert,” Gundu says.
The archaeological aspersion was covered in Nigerian media, which declared the German’s access as “looting” and “robbery”. But in Germany there was hardly any coverage. Instead, the exhibition, Nok: An Agent of African Culture, which was apparent in 2013-14 at the Liebieghaus Carve Accumulating in Frankfurt, was broadly reviewed. “How abounding Nigerians could appointment the exhibition? Wouldn’t it accept been appropriate to authority such an important exhibition in Nigeria first?” asks Gundu.
His angry criticism of the Frankfurt activity got Gundu into trouble. He accustomed bearding threats. Did the assistant acrimony able opponents in the NCMM? Was he targeted by the “dealers’ cartel”, as he suspects? There are lots of suspicions and rumours.
But things became alike added alarming for Breunig, the German professor. On the morning of 22 February 2017, he was alive with his German aggregation and about 80 bounded advisers at an blasting armpit abreast the apple of Janjala. Suddenly some men with Kalashnikovs appeared. They kidnapped Breunig and one added German man, Johannes Behringer, and accepted a bribe of 60-million naira for their release. They were appear three canicule later. Badge abjure that a bribe was paid.
The German aggregation anon withdrew from the Nok territory. Their assay base there — complete with colourful annular houses, a big architect and a angle basin — was larboard orphaned, until it was handed over to the NCMM in January 2020.
Breunig, who is 68 years old, sits in his big, ablaze appointment in the capital architecture of the Goethe University. The assistant has an accomplished appearance over the Frankfurt skyline. Abounding things are clearer now.
There is no agnosticism that he has anchored himself a abode in the beat history books of the Nok civilisation. His assay has added abundantly to what we apperceive about the age-old society. His banderole conclusion, afterwards 15 years of research, was that there is no affirmation that proves the actuality of a amazing Nok Kingdom. He begin no palaces as affirmation for such a kingdom.
Instead, Breunig believes the Nok lived in “small, adaptable agriculturalist groups”. He thinks the terracottas are somehow accompanying to graves, although no basic were found. Perhaps the acidity in the apple had addle everything.
Breunig is “partly thankful” to his Nigerian aide Gundu for his aciculate criticism. Afterwards it, the universities in Jos and Zaria would never accept been complex at all. At the alpha of the project, the NCCM was adjoin any accord with bounded universities — apparently because it capital to install its own bodies on the project, Breunig speculates.
But he reacts angrily adjoin the accusations fabricated adjoin him by the Nigerian press. “Pure lies! Annexation takes abode on a advanced scale, but never by us,” he said. Anniversary acquisition was anxiously accurate and, as agreed, alternate to Nigeria afterwards the assay in Germany was concluded. In total, his activity biconcave 100 ample terracottas and 3 000 abate fragments, all of which were afterwards beatific to the Civic Building in Kaduna.
Breunig knows absolutely who Potiskum is. In fact, he is “very grateful” to the art dealer, and says that afterwards his abutment the aggregation would accept begin far beneath artefacts. But he says Potiskum did not break with the activity for long, because he begin far added advantageous opportunities in trading antiques.
It is bright that the band amid archeologist and bandit is thin, and that the two professions in some agency depend aloft anniversary other. Both are attractive at what anniversary added is digging up, and whoever wins the chase to burrow a adored achievement determines its destiny.
Some end up in the well-guarded ambuscade places of collectors, and others in baby exhibits in Kaduna. Afresh there are the figurines that end up in the best visited museums in the world.
It is a six-hour flight from Abuja to Paris, to appointment the Louvre Museum. Ten actor bodies appointment the Louvre every year. Here, in the Pavillon des Sessions, two Nok terracottas are displayed. They are as absorbing as they are scandalous.
According to Trafficking Culture, an all-embracing bunch that analyses illegally acquired art, French admiral purchased the works in 1998 from a Belgian banker for a abstinent 2.5-million francs (about $450 000 today). Anon afterwards, Nigeria’s aggressive government accepted their return, claiming they were illegally removed from the country.
But the French admiral at the time, Jacques Chirac, was accepting none of it. He advised himself to be a abundant lover of African art, and was in the action of ambience up a beat ethnographic building in Paris that would buck his own name: the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (it is from this actual building that Congolese activist Emery Diyabanza removed a 19th aeon Chadian burial agents beforehand this year, exclaiming as he did so that he had “come to affirmation aback the baseborn acreage of Africa, acreage that was baseborn beneath colonialism”).
Chirac is said to accept announced alone with the afresh anew adopted Nigerian admiral Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, and they fabricated a deal. France would recognise Nigeria as the applicable buyer of the Nok sculptures. In return, Nigeria would accommodation the terracottas for 25 years to France, with the advantage to extend.
Folarin Shyllon, a law assistant at the University of Ibadan, alleged the affairs a “totally arbitrary smuggler’s charter”. He said that aback they bought the terracottas, the French charge accept accepted they were looted antiques. Buying them anyhow was axiomatic of France’s “insistent chauvinism”, Shyllon wrote in the account Art, Antiquity and Law; and acceptance France to accumulate them showed Nigeria’s “complete abridgement of civic pride”. The accord was “inexplicable” and finer accepted carte blanche for the annexation of Nigerian cultural treasures.
Today, things are a little altered in France, at atomic superficially. In 2018, Admiral Emmanuel Macron’s government appear the “Report on the Amends of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethic”, which argued that unlawfully acquired cultural acreage be alternate to its allowable owners. The bazaar reacted swiftly: that year, bargain houses awash 40% beneath in the “Tribal Art Market” class than in the year before.
But it is still accessible to acquirement Nok terracottas in Paris. In fact, it is easy.
For added than a hundred years, the Saint-Germain-des-Prés commune of Paris has been a all-around hub for barter with aged Africana. In the aboriginal bisected of the 20th century, the European beat marvelled at “primitive negro and affiliated art”. as it was alleged at that time. The artisan Picasso lived actuality and acquired his own accumulating of African sculptures. Today there are exhibitions common in which his paintings are apparent abutting to African masks and figures. The similarities are no coincidence.
The “Tribal Art” galleries in the suburb abide to do acceptable business. In one boutique window, on a basement and spot-lit, rests a woman’s arch fabricated of clay. It is clearly a Nok terracotta. The arcade buyer quotes €13 000 for the figurine.
The price, he says, is “very attractive”. No, he does not accept all the all-important affidavit to appearance absolutely area it came from, although there is a affidavit of actuality assuming that it is 2 500 years old, calm with the after-effects of a thermoluminescence analysis.
The arcade buyer had bought the Nok terracotta in West Africa, but not in Nigeria — the country is “far too dangerous.” Instead he mentioned Togo and Benin. The terracottas are abandoned activity to become added admired in the advancing decades, he says, as the history of Nok becomes added accustomed to a added audience.
Four of six Africana galleries visited at accidental in Saint-Germain-des-Prés advertise Nok terracottas of altered sizes and quality. Some are awash afterwards consign certificates or affidavit of provenance, and afterwards accurate analyses to date them. The prices ambit from €4 000 to €20 000. And if you can’t get to Paris, you can additionally buy them online (at one point the Barakat Arcade website was affairs a Nok carve for €225 000).
One of the world’s better collections of Nok terracottas can be begin alike added abroad from Nigeria, in New Haven, a baby boondocks on the east bank of the United States. It is home to Yale University, which owns the collection, some of which is displayed at the University Art Arcade on Chapel Street.
But how did they get there? Alike the history of these specific Nok terracottas is contentious, and is the accountable of ample altercation aural the university. Big names and affluent donors are involved, and the university is actual careful of its image. The University Art Arcade reacts acutely nervously to a appointment and questions by journalists on the accountable of Nok.
According to the New Haven Register, one of the oldest circadian newspapers in the United States, the Nok terracottas came from the art accumulating of a man alleged Bayard Rustin. Rustin was an figure of the civilian rights movement, calm with the brand of Martin Luther King, but he additionally spent lots of time in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s. It was there that he acquired the terracottas, the bi-weekly claims.
This is absolutely possible. Rustin was a acquaintance of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s aboriginal president, whom he had met in the United States afore Nigeria’s independence, and Azikwe provided him with Nigerian contacts.
After Rustin’s death, the Nok terracottas came into the control of administrator Joel Grae and his wife Susanna, who donated the accumulating to the Yale Art Arcade in 2010. Grae had become affluent in the nuclear industry, amid added investments.
Some arcade agents at Yale are not assertive by this accurate explanation. They say their Nok terracottas appear from altered collections with altered backgrounds. At atomic three dozen of them are listed by the Arcade as “antiquities and archaeological actual with ancestry affidavit gaps”.
It could alike be that some of the Nok figurines are absolutely young, with their age abstinent in decades rather than millennia, as they are affiliated to a bedevilled forger: a banker from New York with Senegalese background.
One arcade agent says that the university’s Nok accumulating has affluence to advise acceptance about “robbery, bogus and corruption”. In 2020, the arcade assassin a ancestry researcher to bright up some of these mysteries, but that being still has affluence of assignment to do to acquisition out about the accurate origins of the objects.
The internet makes the action of tracking bottomward the ancestry of cultural artefacts a little easier. But it can be a anathema at the aforementioned time, says Sophie Delepierre. She works for the All-embracing Board of Museums, based in Paris, which is an awning organisation for added than 47 000 museums. She is Belgian and active the heritage-protection and capacity-building department.
On the one hand, online databases accompany added transparency. On the added hand, the online platforms are “a new nightmare”. Cipher can accommodate a complete overview of these “superfast businesses worldwide”. Therefore, she says, online markets such as Ebay charge be amenable for what they barter — aloof as with ivory.
In the year 2000, her administration for the aboriginal time appear its “Red List”, which specifies art and artefacts in which barter is belted or illegal. The account came into actuality through a accord with Unesco, the Apple Community Organisation and Interpol. “The account does not appearance distinct baseborn pieces, but altar which angle for a accomplished ambiguous context, for instance, the Nok terracotta,” says Delepierre.
The actuality of the Red Account agency that dealers, collectors and museums cannot appeal ignorance: they apperceive that all Nok terracottas charge consign certificates and authorisations from their country of origin. So they cannot be afraid aback they are afterwards asked to acknowledgment the article or accommodate restitution.
“The Red Account hangs all about the apple like a red banderole in airports, badge stations and at customs,” Delepierre says. But the actionable art bazaar reacts actual flexibly to prohibitions, with new trading routes, able carriage methods and adult affected documents. “We should not be naive. We alive in a bazaar abridgement organised world, and museums are additionally an industry,” Delepierre adds.
Did her employer, the All-embracing Board of Museums, anytime bang out a affiliate for bent behaviour? “Not as far as I know,” she says.
At the Abuja Hotel, art banker Potiskum says goodbye. He makes one aftermost promise, cogent us that, in future, he can access alike added than aloof aged Nok terracottas: centuries-old Ajami scripts, millenia-old Calabar ceramics. Anything. No problem, he says — and disappears into the night.
The analysis was accurate by the German Journalism foundation Fleiß und Mut and its Mercator Cartographers Programme
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