Art Market

Christie’s upcoming sale of Igbo sculptures was subject to calls for repatriation.

Justin Kamp
Jun 11, 2020 5:02PM, via ARTnews

Christie's France. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu has called for Christie’s to reconsider selling a pair of Igbo sculptures at the auction firm’s upcoming Paris sale of African art. Okeke-Agulu, who teaches indigenous, modern, and contemporary African and African Diaspora art history at Princeton University, said in an Instagram post that the pair of sculptures up for auction were taken from Nigeria by French collector Jacques Kerchache in the midst of the country’s civil war, which was waged between the Nigerian government and an independent republic established primarily by the Igbo people.

The statues, known as alusi or “sacred sculptures”, are being offered for an estimated price of €250,000–€350,000 ($283,000–$396,000) for the pair, and go up for auction on June 29th as part of Christie’s Arts d’Afrique, d’Océanie et d’Amérique du Nord sale. Christie’s provenance originally described the sculptures as being “acquired in situ” between 1968-69, while the civil war was still ongoing. Okeke-Agulu told ARTnews that while the removal and transport of the sculptures by Kerchache would be considered illegal now, it occurred before the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which formally prohibited the acquisition and transfer of cultural property.

In the Instagram post, Okeke-Agulu said:

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 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.

Okeke-Agulu previously wrote about the theft of Igbo property in a 2017 New York Times op-ed, in which he decried the long-term psychological effects that cultural plundering had on his family and neighbors. His calls for repatriation join a growing chorus of art world academics and professionals demanding that cultural artifacts be returned to their native countries. In 2019, European and Nigerian museums brokered a deal to share ownership of the Benin Bronzes after nearly 50 years of Nigeria calling for their restitution. In February, British ownership of the Parthenon Marbles also came under fire as part of Brexit trade negotiations.

In response to an inquiry about the Igbo sculptures it plans to auction, a Christie’s spokesperson shared a statement with Artsy that reads in part:

The Igbo couple (lot 47) to be offered for sale was acquired by Jacques Kerchache from an African dealer in either 1968–1969. The provenance regarding this lot have been published several times and validated by well-respected scholars, collectors and dealers. It is known that Jacques Kerchache never travelled to Nigeria. There is no legal reason not to proceed with this sale,
We do appreciate the catalogue terminology ‘in situ’ is confusing; it has a different connotation in the African art category. We are removing it from the provenance information as it does not refer to precise information of the actual place of acquisition. In this field, it is used as a term to designate the fact that the object was collected by an African dealer before being sold to a foreign collector outside of the African continent.
There is a legitimate market for these statues and this sale falls within our compliance and due diligence process. These objects are being sold as part of a transparent, legitimate and legally compliant public sale process.

Update: June 11th, 2020

This article has been updated to include a statement provided by Christie’s.

Justin Kamp