Agencies Confront Rise in Stolen African Art

Article excerpt

On the cover of the International Council of Museums' latest catalog is a poster: two statuettes, a hand offering a wadded-up bill, and the warning, "It is an offense to buy or sell antiquities."

This is no ordinary art book. It is an inventory of objects stolen from museums or archaeological sites in 22 African countries -- part of a campaign launched by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), UNESCO, and the international police agency INTERPOL, to combat looting.

"Looting is relatively new to Africa," says ICOM secretary-general Elizabeth des Portes. "Thefts occurred in the past in village communities, but now we have examples of entire museums that have been emptied of their collections," she says. Archeological sites, too, are easy prey.

African poverty, as well as the isolation of these sites, make illicit digging a temptation to thieves. Police sources can't estimate the dimensions of the problem, but signs betray the handiwork of organized traffickers. Within three weeks of news of an illicit dig, Ms. des Portes reports, objects from the site begin appearing in galleries in Europe.

According to Pierre Cornette de St. Cyr, an auctioneer specializing in primitive art at Paris's Drouot auction house, interest in African art in the West is up sharply: "Collectors of African art are fanatics. Passionate. They want very rare pieces. They're willing to pay the price," he says.

This worries des Portes, who says obsessive collectors -- or the galleries that supply them -- might actually commission illicit digs. "It's especially devastating for Africa," she adds, "because in the past, people thought there was no history in Africa. But recent archeological discoveries show that there is a history. And if these objects are taken out of their context, they can no longer say anything about the history of Africa."

Bernard Dulon, a specialist in African archeology at Paris auctioneers de Quay and Lombrail, defends what he calls "private archeological research. …