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HERITAGE: The Vanishing Art Treasures



Much as Nigeria’s valuable resources in antiquities had been, and still being smuggled out through a number of means like theft, looting and illegal acquisition, perpetrated first by the early missionaries, colonial administrators and traders.  These criminal acts were later perpetrated by trafficking syndicates, some of which are organized by Nigerians, in collaboration with outside agencies. Attempts by successive Nigerian governments to recover these homes of arts have not been successful.

In this special report, our Oyo/Ogbomoso Correspondent, BODE DUROJAIYE, examines the deteriorating state of the vast art treasures and how to stem the tide of theft and illegal export in antiquities, as well as preserve from further decay.


The 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, served 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 giving meaning to life.

Sculptures constitute the bulk of Nigeria’s resources in antiquities, and they no doubt, represent important landmarks in the artistic creations of the Nigerian people.

These works of arts, though precious and priceless to the culture that created them, have witnessed series of theft, misconception and brutalization 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 tended to regard as inferior the African and his various cultural creations, most of Africa’s workers 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 is 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.


Prof. Wande Abimbola: Nigeria’s Sculptures Last Longer


Commenting on the development, a consultant to renowned scholar on culture and tradition, Professor Wande Abimbola, 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 Abinmbola stated that in the mid 70s Benin piece of art work was sold for €34,000 and sometimes in 1989 a sixteenth century bronze sculpture from Benin was sold for two million US Dollars in an auction in London.

“As a result of great demand for quick financial gains, several raids were carried out on museums 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.

Besides a number of legislations passed in Nigeria to preserve and protect antiquities, it is regrettable that 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 the UNESCO’s directive on restitution.


Problems of Ignorance, Apathy


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. It was 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 the village shrives, for example, he objects are often left in the open air thereby exposing them to the elements of weather. Besides occasionally rubbing palm oil or chalk in the objects by the priest as part of the virtual process, especially during festivals, no other efforts are made to previous them for decay, damage or attack by insect”.

Most museum, particularly the institutional museum, according to Prof. Abimbola, lack the basic conservation equipment necessary for the care of the objects in their collections.

“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 organized establishment in society of which the museum is one, Professor Abimbola called for adequate security arrangements to protect museums (public and privates, shrives and sacred given from incessant raids.


Photo Documentation


“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 cell 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 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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