Africa, its people already plundered by slavers, its animals by poachers and its mineral wealth by miners, is now yielding up its cultural heritage. Across the continent, artifacts are looted from museums, from universities and straight from the ground. Most of the objects--ancient terra-cotta and stone figures, brass and bronze sculptures, wooden grave markers, masks and doors--end up in the U.S. and Europe, where collectors prize such items as the 16th century Benin bronze castings whose technical finesse rivals works produced by Europeans of the same era. Among the most sought-after items are figurines from Kawu, with their distinctive triangular eyes and abstracted features, remnants of the Nok culture that flourished in central Nigeria from 500 B.C. to A.D. 200.
Nigeria has suffered the most looting. During the past two decades its museums have been robbed of hundreds of their most valuable items. In an infamous break-in at the National Museum in Ile-Ife in 1994, thieves with an inside contact smashed open 11 display cases. Their haul, which included some of the best-known 12th and 13th century Ife terra-cotta and brass heads--all uninsured--was worth about $200 million. It was the museum's third burglary that year. Nigerian traders also target villages like Kawu, buying artifacts from locals or encouraging rudimentary digging. "It's not exactly excavation," says Abiye Ichaba, head of research and documentation at the Abuja Council for Arts and Culture. "There's nothing systematic about it, no pattern to it. We call it plundering."
Some governments have attempted to regulate or prevent the sale of antiquities. So has the International Commission of Museums, which publishes a Red List of African archaeological objects particularly at risk of looting. None have had much success. Interpol, the international police organization, estimates that the illicit trade in cultural property is worth $4.5 billion a year worldwide, up from $1 billion a decade ago. Africa accounts for 10% of this black market, and its share is growing. "It's a fantastically big problem," says Omotoso Eluyemi, director general at Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (N.C.M.M.).
Long tainted with the romance and condescension of the word primitive, African works have come to be valued for their intrinsic beauty and artistic merit. In the 1950s, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art turned down an opportunity to acquire Nelson Rockefeller's extensive collection of non-European art, prompting Rockefeller to found the Museum of Primitive Art in New York City in 1954. By 1969 the Met had had a change of heart. In 1982 it opened its Rockefeller Wing, which absorbed the entire contents of the Museum of Primitive Art. Smaller galleries have echoed this trend. In September the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., will display a trove of 145 pieces donated by philanthropist Lawrence Gussman. Next year the exhibition will travel to the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian.
It is the West's growing enthusiasm for African objects that has placed many of them in jeopardy. Most of Mali's archaeological sites, including graves built into the cliffs along the World Heritage-listed Bandiagara escarpment, have been looted. Ethiopia is struggling to protect its oldest silver Coptic Christian crosses and medieval manuscripts. Since 1970, illegal traders in Kenya and Tanzania have carted off hundreds of vigango, or Swahili wooden grave markers. When fighting erupted in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 1991, one of the first casualties was the National Museum. Within weeks many of its prized exhibits, including ancient Egyptian pottery, were on sale to tourists in neighboring Kenya.
Tourists scoop up some of the illicit bargains, but the best artifacts are bought by dealers filling orders from Europe, the U.S. and South Africa. Using a letter from the N.C.M.M. permitting him to export contemporary arts and crafts--but not antiquities--Lagos dealer Chinedu Idezuna recently booked a crateful of works onto a flight to Amsterdam. "Customs officials check the shipment for narcotics, for this and that, but because I've got the letter, I'm fine," he says. "Our government doesn't permit it, of course, but we gallery owners get [objects] out by telling [customs officials] that we are having a show of African culture."