LONDON. – The 24th of January 2017 was a cold, foggy day in London.
At midday John Axford, of the auctioneers Woolley and Wallis, was in his office in upmarket Mayfair, waiting to meet a visitor from Belgium who wanted to show him a sculpture.
“He produced this particularly beautiful piece,” said Mr Axford.
It was a bronze cast head, which Mr Axford recognised as coming from Ife, a Yoruba kingdom in what is today south-western Nigeria.
Original Ife bronze heads, of which only some 20 survive, are thought to be about 700 years old. They are cast in thin metal with great skill and are strikingly lifelike, amongst the most magnificent sculptures ever made in sub-Saharan Africa.
“This kind just does not turn up commercially,” said Mr Axford.
But the sculpture had a hole by the left eye, which matched the description of a head reported stolen by the UN’s cultural organisation, UNESCO.
“I realised we had a problem,” said Mr Axford. “If it was legal, it would have been worth £20m. I told the man it was a wonderful piece, but we can’t sell it. “We had to give it to the police.”
The man left.
Mr Axford, afraid to let the sculpture out of his sight, slept with it at his bedside.
The next morning he gave it to the British police, who’ve had it ever since.
To follow this story to Mayfair, we must first go back almost exactly 30 years, to the city of Jos in central Nigeria. On the night of 14 January 1987, thieves broke into the Jos Museum. A guard was severely beaten.
The thieves knew what they wanted – they made off with nine of the museum’s most precious treasures. In the 1980s and ‘90s Nigeria’s museums suffered many damaging robberies. Staff from within Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) collaborated in some of the thefts. A former employee at Jos Museum told me she was in no doubt that this robbery was also an inside job.
The NCMM instantly alerted UNESCO, providing photographs of everything stolen from Jos.
In 1990 collectors in Switzerland were approached by a man trying to sell a beautiful Benin Bronze head for a half a million Swiss francs.
The collectors were suspicious, and with the help of American, Swiss and Nigerian diplomats it was identified as having come from Jos and was returned to Nigeria.
Meanwhile the other eight pieces had, apparently, vanished. Most of them, including the Ife head, are listed in a 1994 publication by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), entitled One Hundred Missing Objects; Looting in Africa.
It wasn’t until many years later, in bizarre circumstances, that the Ife head would reappear, in Belgium.On 14 November 2007, the Belgian authorities held an auction of confiscated art items.
Among the lots was the Ife head.
It was bought by a local antique dealer, for the princely sum of €200 ($210; £170), plus 20% tax. He bought an acoustic guitar at the same auction.
This extraordinary sale raises three obvious questions: how did this stolen treasure come into the hands of the Belgian authorities; why did they let it go; and did the dealer know he was buying one of Africa’s greatest masterpieces? – BBC