Looting Africa

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One catalyst for the booming trade is poverty. Villagers, many of whom have turned to Islam or Christianity and reject the idols of their forefathers, see no point in holding on to the artifacts when they can barely afford to feed their families. "Why do you think we sold them?" says schoolteacher Sala. "We need money."

Political unrest fuels the trade. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, as in Somalia, years of fighting have left many of the country's museums nearly empty. "For starving, unpaid soldiers, anything is good for sale," says George Abungu, chairman of the International Standing Committee on the Traffic in Illicit Antiquities. "Lack of order is a perfect breeding ground for people who want to collect art."

For Westerners, acquiring top-quality African art and artifacts has never been easier. The largest transit point for wholesale African art in the U.S. is New York City's Chelsea Mini-Storage facility, an enormous warehouse whose ground floor resembles an African bazaar. Hundreds of traders, most from West Africa, have set up stalls, a makeshift mosque and a kitchen where women prepare traditional meals. Upstairs, Senegalese dealer Moussa Cissokho displays his wares. The presentation is modest--the figurines are still caked with soil, and the small space is crammed with crates--but the price is right. For a figure about a foot high that could, if it is a genuine Nok, command tens of thousands of dollars at a gallery, he quotes a bargain price of $3,000. What you might call a steal.

The makeshift nature of Cissokho's showroom may contribute to the bargains he is able to offer, but similar deals can be found elsewhere. An online auction by the Howard S. Rose Gallery in Manhattan featured a number of Noks, including a "fine large-size sculptural terra-cotta, low-fire ceramic human head" with a minimum required bid of just $2,300. A woman who answered the phone at the gallery insisted that the items were "certifiably genuine." When asked about Nigeria's prohibition on the export and sale of Noks, she replied, "Maybe they were here before this law was passed."

In all likelihood these items, like many African antiquities on the market today, are fake. Christopher Steiner, a professor at Connecticut College and the author of African Art in Transit, estimates that "90% of what's coming into the U.S. is replicas or tourist art that's being made to look old." The problem is so widespread that even Bryna Freyer, the Smithsonian's African-art curator, can't always spot a phony. "I'm not sure I'd know an authentic Bura piece from a fake," says Freyer, referring to 2nd century artifacts from Niger, "because there simply aren't any in this country legally."

In the softly lighted, temperature-controlled rooms of museums like the Met and the Louvre, antiquities are displayed with a respect uncommon in an African museum, where an exhibit may be dusty, unlabeled and all but forgotten. Moreover, the antiquities are safe. Frank Willett, a leading authority on Nigerian antiquities, has advised that disputed items in Western museums not be returned to Nigeria unless they can be properly protected. He compares the illicit-art trade to the drug trade. "The stimulus for all this, of course, comes from the West," he says. "If collectors and museums were not interested in acquiring these pieces, there wouldn't be an illicit trade in them."

Some attempts to stem the traffic may be working. Authorities in Mali have cut illegal exports 75% by enlisting villagers as informants. Mali is the only African country with which the U.S. has signed a bilateral treaty restricting the importation of cultural artifacts. In Nigeria, museums boss Eluyemi is talking with a group of illegal traders--who insist on being called vendors and have even formed a union--to work out "compensation" for the works they find to ensure that at least some objects remain in the country. The 1995 digging frenzy in Kawu slowed after six months, partly as a result of visits by police and cultural officials.

Idezuna, the Lagos dealer, has prepared to export four worn but beautiful Nok sculptures. They look fragile and dainty, their texture slightly granulated, as if built up by sand and glue. Idezuna paid $450 for the lot and expects to make $15,000 when he sells them to one of his European contacts, who will sell them for as much as $30,000. "It concerns me that we are losing our cultural heritage," he says. "But I don't blame myself. If I had the money to collect them, I wouldn't sell them. But they are more protected in Europe. Here we are yet to know the value of what we have."

As long as they are valued elsewhere, Africa's remaining riches will continue their exodus. The rape of this treasure-filled continent is not over.

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