/ 25 October 2020

Inside the illicit trade in West Africa’s oldest artworks

Entrance Into The Nok Village Photo Adie Vanessa Offiong (1)
The entrance to Nok village.

Outside it has become night. In front of the windows of one of Abuja’s grandest hotels, the pool shines turquoise blue. Finally, the phone rings. It is the hotel’s front desk, announcing a guest.

The man who comes into the room, hours late for the scheduled appointment, is named Umaru Potiskum. He is an art dealer. He’s wearing a dark blue dashiki and is full of self-confidence, but is also a little suspicious. His is, after all, an underground, illegal business. 

“Here I have met many customers,” he says — buyers from Belgium, France, Spain, England and Germany. He shows us what he’s selling, carefully unwrapping two delicate terracotta statues from a piece of cloth.

The eyes gazing out from the ancient clay are triangular, typical of Nok figurines. Over the decades, thousands of these figurines have been taken out of Nigeria. Many are on display in some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries, including at the Louvre in Paris and Yale University. Many more are no longer displayed, however, because their provenance is questionable.

Anyone who wants to understand what drives this multimillion-dollar global trade must go searching: in Abuja and Paris, in Frankfurt and New Haven. But the first stop is the Nok Valley.

A cradle of civilisation

One hundred and fifty kilometres northeast of Abuja, a reddish-brown bush track winds through the lush green of the Nok Valley, towards a village. Mango and palm trees and millet fields surround about three dozen houses and mud huts. Children are running after a hoop, while women chat under the shade of a tree.

It was here, in 1928, that a foreign miner supposedly discovered the first antique terracotta figure: a monkey head, 10cm high. As archaeologists digged further, they discovered the remnants of an ancient culture, which, as per convention, they named after the surrounding area: Nok. 

From around 1500BCE — at the same time that ancient Greece was flourishing, the Mayan civilisation was developing and Egyptian pharaohs were ruthlessly expanding their empire — a highly developed society was spreading across the valley, encompassing an area the size of Portugal. It is the earliest known civilisation in West Africa, according to Archaeology magazine

Between the years of 900BCE and 300BCE, the Nok produced a staggering number of striking clay figurines, including elaborately stylised people, animals and fantasy creatures, adorned with ornaments, jewelry and symbols. Many appeared to have been buried in shards. Even today these figurines are a riddle: Why were they made? What did they mean? Why did so many appear to have been deliberately broken and then buried?

Thousands of figurines have been dug up. Today, it is getting harder and harder to find any more of them — making the figurines all the more valuable.

The district head of Nok, chief Beno Adamu, who says the people living in the Nok Valley have not benefited from their heritage

The thirsty dealer

At the Abuja hotel, Potiskum takes another drink and starts talking numbers. His two figurines — a man’s head and a larger statue of a woman — are more than 2000 years old, he claims, and any laboratory analysis will prove it. He charges €2 000 for the man’s head, and claims that it can be sold to buyers overseas for 10 times that amount. The female figurine goes for considerably more.

These sums would seem astronomical to residents in the Nok Valley, some of whom help to find and dig up the terracottas. They are paid €5 a day, at most; many earn just €1 a day.

But that’s how it works, explains Nigeria’s Minister for Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed. Nigerian middlemen buy the Nok terracottas at source for a pittance, and then sell them on for a fortune. “We have not yet done enough to stop our own people and to convince them to protect their own cultural heritage,” he said.

Given the lack of alternative employment opportunities, the state has found this trade nearly impossible to control — much to the minister’s frustration. “These works define our history. They define who we are. Those who sell our cultural heritage abroad are harming Nigeria,” he said. He is also critical of the international art market, which seems unable to stop the illicit trade in Nok terracottas once they have left Nigeria.

Mohammed does not have an easy job. Nigeria’s population is about 190-million people, and they speak more than 500 languages. The country is a finely woven carpet of religions and ethnicities and cultures, many rooted in emirates and kingdoms whose traditions stretch back for thousands of years. Its borders are arbitrary, drawn up by British colonisers, whose understanding of local dynamics was limited at best. Arts and culture is one tool that the government has to bring this diverse nation together, so it does not help when important cultural artefacts keep ending up in other countries.

Potiskum knows a thing or two about those British colonists. His father was a close colleague of Bernhard Fagg, an English archaeologist who worked in the colonial administration in Nigeria from the 1940s to the 1960s. He was responsible for telling the Western academic world about the newly discovered Nok culture, astonishing them in the process. At the time, “Black Africa” was, in the Western world, widely considered to be a land without history; a “heart of darkness” just waiting to be civilised. This myth helped to legitimise the brutal subjugation of the continent by Western colonists.

Archaeology professor Zachary Gundu, who has criticised the work of German researchers during an excavation project in Nigeria

The very existence of the Nok culture challenged that racist myth. Today, in academic circles, Fagg is still seen as the great pioneer of Nok studies, or even the “discoverer” of Nok culture. And in the Nok valley, in the village of the same name, the house where Fagg once lived is still standing. Sometimes tourists even come to look at it. But if they want to hear nice things about Fagg, they had better not ask Beno Adamu, the village chief.

Adamu’s house is made of stone and is located at the entrance of the village, on the left side. Inside the house, the 75-year-old dignitary sits in a big, soft armchair. His memories and knowledge differ greatly from the versions in the history books. He dismisses the notion that the Nok terracottas were “discovered” by foreigners.

“We, Ham people here in Nok, look back at a long, long history and have always known these terracottas. Our grandfathers told us about them.” The Ham people had them in their shrines, houses and even out in the fields as scarecrows — long before Fagg “discovered” them.

Adamu met Fagg a few times, when he was a young boy. He remembers: “Fagg asked the people to bring their terracottas to his house. Which they did. Then he told them that the pieces would be worthless. They never saw their terracottas again. They were already packed.”

Adamu speaks openly about what many people in the village think: “We are warm-hearted people. We like to have guests. But our treasures have been taken away and we do not see them again. Today they are in England, Germany and France. Many people came here, selfish, and used us as cheap labour. Then they disappeared and nobody supported us in our development. Not even our own government. We have not really benefited from our great heritage.”

The house where British archaeologist Bernhard Fagg used to live in Nok village.

‘Don’t worry, I know a guy’

Almost every Nok terracotta excavated over the last 50 years has left Nigeria for the international art market. When talking to local government officials in Kaduna State, where the Nok Valley is situated, it becomes clear that there are few systems in place to keep them in the country.

The head of prisons does not know of any inmate who has been imprisoned for illegal digging or smuggling of cultural artefacts. The police chief says that his priorities are kidnappings, banditry and conflict between cattle herders and farmers. He does not have time to worry about the terracottas. The immigration boss has been to workshops about cultural heritage and how to protect it, but has not yet confiscated any smuggled artefacts.

In the hotel room, Potiskum boasts: “Don’t worry, export is no problem. Wherever I have to deliver, I deliver. I just need the address.” He knows the customs people; border guards in Lagos; an international shipping company that helps him. He can even organise the export through other West African countries such as Togo, Benin and Ghana. He has a well-functioning network there.

And the export papers? “I can get everything,” he promises. Never mind that he is also a member of the Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria, an organisation of art dealers that purports to protect Nigerian cultural heritage.

Potiskum says that it does not pay to remain above the law. He says he once handed over 72 Nok terracottas to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), but has not seen a single naira for them — despite the government’s promise to pay for rescued antiques. He claims that the NCMM owes him 65-million naira (about $170 000).

The art dealer is getting a little more relaxed. He is talking up his credentials, and mentions “my friends Peter Breunig and Nicole Rupp”. Breunig and Rupp are two German archaeology professors from Frankfurt’s Goethe University. Between 2005 and 2020 they led an excavation project in Nigeria, which was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). But while digging for ancient history, the project opened up new wounds.

Enter the Germans

It’s hot in Abuja: 42°C, and the air conditioners are working hard. On the second floor of an office tower in Utako, Zachary Gundu enters the meeting room. Gundu is a professor of archaeology at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. He is a prominent academic; among other positions, he was on the council of the World Archaeological Congress.

Everyone knows that archaeologists in Nigeria urgently need international involvement and academic co-operation, he says. But he is not at all happy with how the German team went about it. They did not want to work with Nigerian researchers at the universities in Zaria and Jos, he said. Eventually, “they had to be forced” to work together.

It was only in 2012 that local researchers could become involved in the German project. But even then, according to Gundu, Nigerian professors were given “no significant work”. Even more shocking to Gundu is that the German team seemed happy to work with illegal diggers and criminal art dealers.

Gundu is not alone in his criticism.

In 2012, 48 Nigerian archaeologists from five universities signed a document in which they criticised, among other things, “how the German team took advantage of the ‘institutional weakness’ of the NCMM” to exclude Nigerian archaeologists “from exchange of knowledge and participation in the project”.

They talk of the “unethical practices of the German team”, “the manipulation of local communities”, support for activities “leading to the illegal excavation of archaeological sites” and “unsupervised export” of Nok terracottas.

Gundu says that Western intellectuals and international organisations should be collaborating against what he describes as a “postcolonial injustice”. 

“But Africa is often misused as a laboratory where European scientists just walk in, experiment and collect data with which they can verify their ideas about the continent,” says Gundu. And then these scientists — people like Breunig — are considered to be the global experts on Africa. “He’s now regarded worldwide as the Nok expert,” Gundu says.

The archaeological scandal was covered in Nigerian media, which described the German’s approach as “looting” and “robbery”. But in Germany there was hardly any coverage. Instead, the exhibition, Nok: An Origin of African Culture, which was shown in 2013-14 at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt, was widely reviewed. “How many Nigerians could visit the exhibition? Wouldn’t it have been decent to hold such an important exhibition in Nigeria first?” asks Gundu.

His fierce criticism of the Frankfurt project got Gundu into trouble. He received anonymous threats. Did the professor anger powerful opponents in the NCMM? Was he targeted by the “dealers’ cartel”, as he suspects? There are lots of suspicions and rumours.

But things became even more dangerous for Breunig, the German professor. On the morning of 22 February 2017, he was working with his German team and about 80 local employees at an excavation site near the village of Janjala. Suddenly some men with Kalashnikovs appeared. They kidnapped Breunig and one other German man, Johannes Behringer, and demanded a ransom of 60-million naira for their release. They were released three days later. Police deny that a ransom was paid.

The German team immediately withdrew from the Nok territory. Their research station there — complete with colourful round houses, a big generator and a fish pool — was left orphaned, until it was handed over to the NCMM in January 2020.

Digging up difficult history

Breunig, who is 68 years old, sits in his big, light office in the main building of the Goethe University. The professor has an excellent view over the Frankfurt skyline. Many things are clearer now.

There is no doubt that he has secured himself a place in the modern history books of the Nok civilisation. His research has added greatly to what we know about the ancient society. His headline conclusion, after 15 years of research, was that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a spectacular Nok Kingdom. He found no palaces as evidence for such a kingdom. 

Instead, Breunig believes the Nok lived in “small, mobile farmer groups”. He thinks the terracottas are somehow related to graves, although no bones were found. Perhaps the acidity in the earth had decomposed everything.

Breunig is “partly thankful” to his Nigerian colleague Gundu for his sharp criticism. Without it, the universities in Jos and Zaria would never have been involved at all. At the beginning of the project, the NCCM was against any collaboration with local universities — probably because it wanted to install its own people on the project, Breunig speculates.

But he reacts angrily against the accusations made against him by the Nigerian press. “Pure lies! Looting takes place on a wide scale, but never by us,” he said. Each find was carefully documented and, as agreed, returned to Nigeria after the research in Germany was concluded. In total, his project excavated 100 large terracottas and 3 000 smaller fragments, all of which were later sent to the National Museum in Kaduna.

Breunig knows exactly who Potiskum is. In fact, he is “very grateful” to the art dealer, and says that without his support the team would have found far fewer artefacts. But he says Potiskum did not stay with the project for long, because he found far more lucrative opportunities in trading antiques.

It is clear that the line between archeologist and looter is thin, and that the two professions in some ways depend upon each other. Both are looking at what each other is digging up, and whoever wins the race to excavate a precious artefact determines its destiny. 

Some end up in the well-guarded hiding places of collectors, and others in small exhibits in Kaduna. Then there are the figurines that end up in the most visited museums in the world.

The smugglers’ charter

It is a six-hour flight from Abuja to Paris, to visit the Louvre Museum. Ten million people visit the Louvre every year. Here, in the Pavillon des Sessions, two Nok terracottas are displayed. They are as impressive as they are scandalous.

According to Trafficking Culture, an international consortium that analyses illegally acquired art, French officials purchased the works in 1998 from a Belgian dealer for a moderate 2.5-million francs (about $450 000 today). Immediately afterwards, Nigeria’s military government demanded their return, claiming they were illegally removed from the country.

But the French president at the time, Jacques Chirac, was having none of it. He considered himself to be a great lover of African art, and was in the process of setting up a modern ethnographic museum in Paris that would bear his own name: the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (it is from this very museum that Congolese activist Emery Diyabanza removed a 19th century Chadian funeral staff earlier this year, exclaiming as he did so that he had “come to claim back the stolen property of Africa, property that was stolen under colonialism”).

Chirac is said to have spoken personally with the then newly elected Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, and they made a deal. France would recognise Nigeria as the rightful owner of the Nok sculptures. In return, Nigeria would loan the terracottas for 25 years to France, with the option to extend.

Folarin Shyllon, a law professor at the University of Ibadan, called the contracts a “totally unfair smuggler’s charter”. He said that when they bought the terracottas, the French must have known they were looted antiques. Buying them anyway was evident of France’s “insistent chauvinism”, Shyllon wrote in the journal Art, Antiquity and Law; and allowing France to keep them showed Nigeria’s “complete lack of national pride”. The deal was “inexplicable” and effectively granted carte blanche for the looting of Nigerian cultural treasures.

Today, things are a little different in France, at least superficially. In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron’s government released the “Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethic”, which argued that unlawfully acquired cultural property be returned to its lawful owners. The market reacted swiftly: that year, auction houses sold 40% less in the “Tribal Art Market” category than in the year before.

But it is still possible to purchase Nok terracottas in Paris. In fact, it is easy.

For more than a hundred years, the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris has been a global hub for trade with antique Africana. In the first half of the 20th century, the European avant-garde marvelled at “primitive negro and tribal art”. as it was called at that time. The artist Picasso lived here and acquired his own collection of African sculptures. Today there are exhibitions worldwide in which his paintings are shown next to African masks and figures. The similarities are no coincidence.

The “Tribal Art” galleries in the suburb continue to do good business. In one shop window, on a pedestal and spot-lit, rests a woman’s head made of clay. It is unmistakably a Nok terracotta. The gallery owner quotes €13 000 for the figurine.

The price, he says, is “very attractive”. No, he does not have all the necessary documentation to show exactly where it came from, although there is a certificate of authenticity showing that it is 2 500 years old, together with the results of a thermoluminescence analysis.

The gallery owner had bought the Nok terracotta in West Africa, but not in Nigeria — the country is “far too dangerous.” Instead he mentioned Togo and Benin. The terracottas are only going to become more valuable in the coming decades, he says, as the history of Nok becomes more familiar to a wider audience.

Four of six Africana galleries visited at random in Saint-Germain-des-Prés sell Nok terracottas of different sizes and quality. Some are sold without export certificates or proof of provenance, and without scientific analyses to date them. The prices range from €4 000 to €20 000. And if you can’t get to Paris, you can also buy them online (at one point the Barakat Gallery website was selling a Nok sculpture for €225 000).

The Yale connection

One of the world’s largest collections of Nok terracottas can be found even further away from Nigeria, in New Haven, a small town on the east coast of the United States. It is home to Yale University, which owns the collection, some of which is displayed at the University Art Gallery on Chapel Street.

But how did they get there? Even the history of these specific Nok terracottas is contentious, and is the subject of considerable controversy within the university. Big names and rich donors are involved, and the university is very protective of its image. The University Art Gallery reacts extremely nervously to a visit and questions by journalists on the subject of Nok.

According to the New Haven Register, one of the oldest daily newspapers in the United States, the Nok terracottas came from the art collection of a man called Bayard Rustin. Rustin was an icon of the civil rights movement, together with the likes of Martin Luther King, but he also spent lots of time in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s. It was there that he acquired the terracottas, the newspaper claims.

This is quite possible. Rustin was a friend of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, whom he had met in the United States before Nigeria’s independence, and Azikwe provided him with Nigerian contacts. 

After Rustin’s death, the Nok terracottas came into the possession of entrepreneur Joel Grae and his wife Susanna, who donated the collection to the Yale Art Gallery in 2010. Grae had become rich in the nuclear industry, among other investments.

Some gallery staff at Yale are not convinced by this neat explanation. They say their Nok terracottas come from different collections with different backgrounds. At least three dozen of them are listed by the Gallery as “antiquities and archaeological material with provenance documentation gaps”.

It could even be that some of the Nok figurines are quite young, with their age measured in decades rather than millennia, as they are connected to a convicted forger: a dealer from New York with Senegalese background. 

One gallery employee says that the university’s Nok collection has plenty to teach students about “robbery, forgery and corruption”. In 2020, the gallery hired a provenance researcher to clear up some of these mysteries, but that person still has plenty of work to do to find out about the true origins of the objects.

The internet makes the process of tracking down the provenance of cultural artefacts a little easier. But it can be a curse at the same time, says Sophie Delepierre. She works for the International Council of Museums, based in Paris, which is an umbrella organisation for more than 47 000 museums. She is Belgian and heads the heritage-protection and capacity-building department.

On the one hand, online databases bring more transparency. On the other hand, the online platforms are “a new nightmare”. Nobody can provide a complete overview of these “superfast businesses worldwide”. Therefore, she says, online markets such as Ebay must be responsible for what they trade — just as with ivory.

From market to museum: Nok terracotta heads at Yale University.

In the year 2000, her department for the first time published its “Red List”, which specifies art and artefacts in which trade is restricted or illegal. The list came into existence through a collaboration with Unesco, the World Customs Organisation and Interpol. “The list does not show single stolen pieces, but objects which stand for a whole problematic context, for instance, the Nok terracotta,” says Delepierre.

The existence of the Red List means that dealers, collectors and museums cannot plead ignorance: they know that all Nok terracottas need export certificates and authorisations from their country of origin. So they cannot be surprised when they are later asked to return the object or provide restitution.

“The Red List hangs all around the world like a red flag in airports, police stations and at customs,” Delepierre says. But the illegal art market reacts very flexibly to prohibitions, with new trading routes, clever transport methods and sophisticated fake documents. “We should not be naive. We live in a market economy organised world, and museums are also an industry,” Delepierre adds.

Did her employer, the International Council of Museums, ever kick out a member for unethical behaviour? “Not as far as I know,” she says.

At the Abuja Hotel, art dealer Potiskum says goodbye. He makes one last promise, telling us that, in future, he can acquire even more than just antique Nok terracottas: centuries-old Ajami scripts, millenia-old Calabar ceramics. Anything. No problem, he says — and disappears into the night.

The investigation was supported by the German Journalism foundation Fleiß und Mut and its Mercator Cartographers Programme