Looting Africa

Theft, illicit sales, poverty and war are conspiring to rob a continent of its rich artistic heritage

The digging began early in 1995, after a farmer uncovered a sculpted terra-cotta head. For $30, nearly twice what he made a month selling yams, he peddled it to a traveling antiquities dealer. Word of the windfall spread, and locals started tilling the ground around Kawu, 30 miles northeast of the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Within months, more than 2,000 diggers were burrowing into Kawu's stony earth. Dealers bid against one another, pushing up prices, in Kawu's version of the Gold Rush. Bars and brothels opened, and newly rich locals bought motorcycles. "Everybody was looking for money," says Abubakar Sala, the local...

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