Help! Vast art treasures deteriorating


Nigeria’s valuable resources in antiquities are being smuggled out through theft, looting and illegal acquisition, perpetrated first by the early missionaries, colonial administrators and traders. Today, these criminal acts are now perpetrated by trafficking syndicates, some of which are organised by Nigerians, in collaboration with outside agencies. Attempts by successive Nigerian governments to recover these works of arts have not been successful. BODE DUROJAIYE examines the deteriorating state of vast art treasures and how to stem the tide of theft and illegal export in antiquities, as well as preserve them from further decay.

Antiquities of any nation constitute a major repository of people’s cultural heritage. In African traditional society, these cultural art effects particularly the works of arts and serves
various functions. They were sometimes linked with and directed towards assuring the cohesion of the group. They were also used in the context of festivals, most of which served to preserve the people’s needs as well as given meaning to life.
Sculptures constitute the bulk of Nigeria’s resources in antiquities, and they no doubt, represent important land marks in the artistic creations of Nigerians.
These works of art, precious and priceless to the culture that created them, have witnessed series of theft, misconception and brutalisation through time in the hands of foreigners
in Nigeria.
These attitudes have tended to play down the role which this cultural artifact performed, and should continue to perform, in the various cultures that gave birth to them.
For instance, as a result of the manifestation of the culture of imperialism which tends to regard as inferior the African and his various cultural creations, most of African works of art were either destroyed by religious fundamentalists as
superstitious, pagan idols or silently and sometimes forcibly exported to Europe as curiosities or spoils of war.
The trend in the illicit trade in antiquities in growing out of proportion in the world today, and African countries, including Nigeria, helpless as they are, appear most vulnerable and are the targets of the smuggling syndicates across the world. As a movable item, an art work could easily disappear from Nigeria in diplomatic bags.
Trafficking in rare art works and antiquities has become big business in Nigeria.
Commenting on the development, a consultant to UNESCO, Professor Julius Ipadeola Olaifa, gave some reasons responsible for the high demand for Nigerian antiquities.
According to him, “Nigeria’s sculptures in wood last much longer than those from other parts of Africa. Also, the bronze, terracotta and stove objects produced here are imperious to the heat and humidity that so readily destroys
many other examples of African art”.
Buttressing his assertion with some examples, Professor Olaifa stated that in the mid 70s, Benin artworks were sold for €34,000 and sometimes in 1989, a 16th century
Bronze sculpture from Benin was sold for $2 million in an auction in London.
“As a result of great demand for quick financial gains, several raids were carried out on museum shrines, sacred groves and palaces holding objects of antiquity”.
Since it is known that these theft and smuggling have often resulted in the degradation and erosion of a people’s cultural heritage and pride and could also head to loss of identity to a people, various measures have been taken by international bodies to eliminate the root-cause of theft and smuggling in antiquities.
Also, despite legislations passed in Nigeria to preserve and protect antiquities, some of the consuming countries, particularly in the developed world, are unwilling to ratify or support these measures and even those who have done so still contravene the terms of the convention, thereby stultifying UNESCO’s directive on restitution.
Apart from the danger posed to antiquities by theft and smuggling, it was gathered that there are also problems of ignorance and apathy towards cultural objects by Nigerians. Another renowned cultural expert, Professor Wande Abimbola, observed that most Nigerians are unaware of the value of these objects to their cultural heritage and even
those who are informed about their value are often not sympathetic to the cause of preserving them.
“The result is that most of the objects that abound the country today are in various stages of deterioration due to neglect and poor handling. In village shrines, for
example, some of these objects are often left in the open, thereby exposing them to the elements of weather. Besides occasionally rubbing palm oil or chalk on the objects by the priest as part of the virtual process, especially during festivals, no other efforts are made to preserve them from decay, damage or attack by insect”.
Most museum, the UNESCO consultant posited, particularly the institutional museum, lack the basic conservation equipment necessary for the care of the objects in their
“Where the equipment are available, the requisite man power may be absent. In Nigeria today, there is a dearth of
trained manpower in the field of museum conservation, and there are very few conservation laboratories and workshops”.
While submitting that security is a pre-condition for the peace and progress of any organised establishment in society of which the museum is one, Professor Abimbola called for adequate security arrangements to protect museums (public and private) and shrines from incessant raids.
“To protect these projects in local hands, photo documentation and proper inventory of these projects should be carried out. Without proper documentation, theft of these antiquities still in private hands over the country cannot be easily detected. But with documentation, the holder of the object will become more conscious of the need
to protect his object”.
He added that the advantage of the photo documentation is that it helps in tracing out the object in the event of theft and also helps in the building of photo archives, which could eventually lead to the publication of catalogues.


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