Prestige Stool: Lion Base from the Akan peoples in Ghana during the 19th century. Wood, 16 1/4 x 24 x 10 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Met Collection.
When it comes to the art market and art collecting, the media has a tendency to focus on the big ticket post-war, contemporary and old master sectors. However, there are other areas of the market that deserve attention for being highly collectible, which includes African art. Collectors are seeking older objects originating from the continent, which may fall into the category of objects with potential for repatriation claims.
Repatriation is the process of returning an asset, an item of symbolic value or a person—voluntarily or forcibly—to its owner or their place of origin or citizenship.
France's president, Emmanuel Macron recently made a statement and initiated a report about the need for France's museums to begin repatriating objects taken from Africa during colonization. Macron’s initiative drew attention to an overarching movement to return cultural objects to native countries. Museums, as well as collectors, may be affected by this movement, which could see countries stepping up to seek the return of their property lost during colonization or other historical conflicts.
This action is debated among scholars and even the countries who may be potentially receiving these objects back, who note that the conditions of the museums and quality of care for the objects would not be up to standards of museums where they are currently held.
What do the experts say?
“Collectors and curators of private museums should always be thinking about an object's biography, or in other words, provenance. Where did it come from, how was it acquired, what has been its path of circulation?” said Christina Kreps, Associate Professor, Director of Museum and Heritage Studies and Director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Denver.
Kreps warned that even when there are answers to these questions, there are still other ethical questions that need to be considered. It’s possible for an artwork to be “legally” acquired during a point in history, according to Kreps, but not ethically collected—as was the case often during the colonial period.
She suggests asking the following questions:
What were the conditions—political, economic, social—under which the piece was collected?
By whom was this work acquired and for what purposes?
Can one justify possessing it today, and if not, what should happen to it?
Collectors and museums should be mindful of risks in collecting cultural objects. Kreps said that going forward “there also needs to be infrastructure in place for the return of objects,” and that, “we are just now getting to the point of creating a system on any sizable scale that might really make a difference."
You can do your part by checking on the provenance of African and post-colonial art objects through resources available to the public. However, since most of the research resources are focused on WWII, these sources can be difficult to find.
"The title of "oba," or king, is passed on to the firstborn son of each successive king within the kingdom of Benin in Nigeria beginning in the fourteenth century. The first obligation of each new king during this transfer of rule is to commemorate his father with a portrait cast in bronze and placed on an altar at the palace. " Head of an Oba from the Edo peoples in Nigeria during the 19th century. Brass, 13 x 11 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Met Collection.
What resources are available for researching post-colonial Art?
A database used to research objects at risk for illegal trafficking is the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Redlist database. ICOM states on their website that "The cultural goods depicted are inventoried objects within the collections of recognized institutions. They serve to illustrate the categories of cultural goods most vulnerable to illicit traffic."
If any of the objects are under consideration for purchase or any type of acquisition, additional research into the object's provenance should be done to track each transaction and ensure it was completed legally. The website clearly states that museums have objects of cultural importance in their collections, but are prone to illegal trafficking.
Trafficking of cultural goods is defined as "illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property, i.e. items being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science” by the European Commission of Culture. “Trafficking in cultural goods can take different forms, ranging from theft from cultural heritage institutions or private collections, through looting of archaeological sites to the displacement of artifacts due to war."
Cultural goods are often small, portable objects like antiquities and sculptures that can travel well and undetected across borders if customs agents are not thorough. Additionally, cultural goods are traded illegally in the market to gain money for activities such as terrorism.
"This opulent ivory sword is an udamalore, literally a 'sword of the well-born.' It was carried by a high-ranking chief of Owo, a Yoruba state in present-day Nigeria that rose to regional power in the eighteenth century." Ceremonial Sword (Udamalore) from the Yoruba peoples in Nigeria during 17th–19th century. Ivory, wood or coconut shell inlay, 3 5/8 x D. 19 1/4in.
What to research before you buy a cultural object
Research should be done to look into any past claims made by a country regarding an object's cultural importance. This can be searched online by searching the country and the type of object. If any countries have made claims or argued for an object's return, the news may be listed. Databases containing international news can sometimes we accessed through local libraries or university libraries.
Researching a country's history will reveal any past conflict or period of rule by another nation which may have resulted in the displacement of cultural property. For example, the colonial period in Nigeria lasted from 1900 to 1960, after which Nigeria gained its independence. As a result, much of Nigeria's cultural heritage was lost. Soldiers would take the objects home and add them to private collections, sell or donate them to museums. Explorers illegally excavated and exported objects. Evidence of this activity lies in the many institutions all over the world that have African objects in their collections.
Public auction websites are a way to track whether cultural objects are circulating in the market without claims. The auction site Arkhade is an auction database of ancient arts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. A search on this database will reveal if a certain type of object is openly traded in the art market without claims from any countries or groups of people. Searching the culture and type of object may reveal a match to other similar objects that are traded in the market without claims.
The object's exhibition history will reveal if it has been displayed publicly in the past. Has the object been exhibited, especially at a major museum, without a repatriation claim? Is there any accompanying literature such as an exhibition catalog that includes similar objects? All of these factors light the way to a safe purchase.
There is no sure-fire way to know if it is 100% safe to purchase an object from a previously colonized country or a country that may have endured looting due to past historical conflicts. Tracking and recording any due diligence including the above will add credibility to an acquisition.