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Unique historical evidence of the ancient cultures of a continent is being put up for sale on the open market in Europe. Yet in the countries of Africa where these priceless treasures belong, there is little public interest in the matter.

The auction house Dorotheum in Vienna has issued a catalogue announcing a forthcoming auction of cultural artefacts from Africa, Asia and Oceania on 26 May 2015.[1] Among the many African items to be sold are pieces of Nok (Nigeria), Komaland (Ghana) and many other interesting pieces. The impressive array of African artefacts once again confirms the accepted fact that Europe has more valuable African artefacts, mostly looted, than Africa itself. Very few museums in Abidjan, Abuja, Accra, Cape Town, Lagos Luanda or Maputo could assemble such a collection.

As with previous auction sales announced by Dorotheum, the provenance of most of the announced items leaves a lot to be desired. The objects are mostly said to be from “private collection in Austria”, “Belgian private ownership” or “private German collection”. Such descriptions do not help in tracing the history of these artefacts to the date of offer for auction. Several items are said to be from the private collection of the late Dr. Ludwig Leopold who was involved in many cases of restitution of Nazi-looted artworks. [2] We were very surprised that in the case of one object offered for auction, it is stated that the object was purchased and that the relevant receipt is available for inspection. [3] The auctioneers must be encouraged to offer such information and more precise details.

As many readers will know by now, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has put certain African artefacts on its Red List for Africa. [4] These artefacts are said to be so important for understanding African civilizations and history that they should under no circumstances be exported outside their countries of origin or be put on sale:

“The looting of archaeological items and the destruction of archaeological sites in Africa are a cause of irreparable damage to African history and hence to the history of humankind. Whole sections of our history have been wiped out and can never be reconstituted. These objects cannot be understood once they have been removed from their archaeological context and divorced from the whole to which they belong. Only professional archaeological excavations can help recover their identity, their date and their location. But so long as there is demand from the international art market these objects will be looted and offered for sale.”

Terracotta from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (Komaland), Mali, Niger and Nigeria (Nok) are all on the Red List (See the Annex).

Some readers may be surprised that the historical evidence of the ancient culture of a continent is being put for sale on the open market in Europe. Many European dealers do not seem to have a conscience that it is wrong to sell the looted artefacts of others. Nor have the European governments been always very active in preventing looting or selling of the cultural artefacts of others. Indeed in the past the European rulers were the prime movers of looting expeditions such as the so-called Benin Punitive Expedition. Recent acts of violent destruction of cultural objects have awakened some people and governments to discuss ways and means of preventing such acts. But has this led to serious reflection and conclusion that you cannot deal effectively with present acts of barbarism if past acts of similar nature are not also condemned? Should the rapacious past be allowed to cast its evil shadow on the barbaric present without any counter-measures?

But if Westerners are not worried by the sale of historical evidence of ancient African civilizations, what about Africans? Those responsible for the preservation of cultural artefacts in countries like Nigeria and Ghana do not seem to be overly worried. They do not seem to express themselves publicly on such issues outside their own circles.

Readers may recall the so-called Geneva row where Swiss scholars openly criticised the exhibition of looted African terracotta which included many items on the ICOM Red List.[5] As far as I can recall neither the Ghana National Commission on Culture nor the of African Art by Dorotheum, Vienna: But What Are the Provenances of the Artefacts?

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5. K. Opoku, Let Others Loot for You: Looting of African Artefacts for Western Museums.

K. Opoku, The Man of Conscience who Returned his Grandfather’s Looted Benin Bronzes Idia and Others Must Return Home: Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted

K. Opoku – “Benin Plan of Action for Restitution .

Pambazuka, Nigerian archaeologists protest German exhibition of looted ...