Corrupt middlemen contracted by Western art dealers are looting
sacred memorial statuettes carved by villagers living along Kenya's
Hundreds of vigango totems have been stolen from rural homesteads
and shipped via dealers living in luxury beachside villas to private
collectors and art dealers in the United States and Europe,
anthropologists have discovered.
Monica Udvardy, an anthropology professor from the University of
Kentucky, and Linda Giles, formerly of the University of Illinois,
have calculated that at least 400 vigango are held in private
collections and in at least 19 museums in the US.
Their findings match earlier investigations by British
anthropologist David Parkin, an expert on Kenya's coastal tribes,
who noted what he termed "the disturbing acquisition of vigango by
art dealers and others in the Western world."
The thefts, researchers and antiquities officials in Kenya say,
are being carried out by poor youths who fall prey to the fat
wallets and smooth talking of traders operating for overseas
collectors. It's part of a booming trade in non-Western cultural
property that's now worth $4.5 billion a year worldwide, up from $1
billion a decade ago, according to Interpol estimates.
The vigango are offered at $300 to $800 in Kenya, but studies
have found them valued at up to $5,000 in US museum catalogs.
However, central to the belief system surrounding vigango is the
prohibition against them ever being moved.
"Moving these objects goes against every cultural and spiritual
belief of these people," says Ms. Udvardy. "It would be like us
stealing our grandfather's tombstone from on top of his grave, or
our grandmother's ashes, and selling them."
Over the past 20 years, the statuettes have been presented in
scores of exhibitions, including those held at the Smithsonian
Institution's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.,
and the New York Center for African Art.
Several permanent exhibitions of African art, including at the
British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, have opened since
Private collectors are keen to keep up, and dealers in Africa are
lining up to supply their appetite.
The Monitor found four vigango on sale in the coastal town of
Mombasa, echoing claims by Udvardy and Dr. Giles, who identified
traders in Mombasa and the capital Nairobi who do not display the
totems openly but will happily show prospective buyers back-room
This was confirmed on separate visits to two Nairobi craft shops
by the Monitor.
Earlier investigations by Amini Tengeza of National Museums of
Kenya, and British scholar Kate Parsons found several statuettes on
display in tourist hotel lobbies.
Impact of the thefts on villages
Villagers who spend up to twice Kenya's average per capita annual
income to make the statues for their dead relatives talk of ill
fortune and angry spirits who come visiting after the relics are