People & Money

African Artefacts: Call for Repatriation Ignores Reality of Billion-Dollar Illicit Trade

At the turn of the century, the black market antiquities trade brought in annual revenue of $4.5 billion globally. Africa was estimated to capture 10% of that value [i.e. $450 million].”

Reports revealed that the looting of antiquities all over the world saw an increase during the coronavirus-mandated lockdown. This has been more pronounced in Africa where the combined factors of economic hardship and weakened structures have given way to the rise of looters who enjoy free reign over archeological sites to pillage as they will. In fact, in some countries, Mali, for instance, up to 90% of key archaeological sites have been looted by opportunistic illicit traders. This had led to calls to put a stop to this culturally and economically disastrous practice.

Of course, the illegal excavation of African archaeological sites is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1991, the then-Director General of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Ade Obayemi, noted that the theft of cultural artefacts was the country’s second-highest form of illegal trafficking, bested only by the widespread opioid crisis plaguing the world at the time. Even long before then, the colonial era witnessed the ransacking of cultural sites by European imperialists, leading to countless monuments being shipped illegally to Europe. However, as more attention is paid to this illicit trade, one gets a clearer picture of just how much danger it presents to the continent.

African art has been a source of fascination for Western art connoisseurs for decades. The 11th century Nok terracottas from Nigeria have been compared to Mesopotamian artefacts. Countless objects originating from Africa can be found filling the galleries of the British Museum in London. For this reason, artefacts from the continent are attractive to those dealing in the illegal art trade. 

Also Read: Illicit Financial Flow From Africa Around $90 billion – UN Study

A 2001 TIME article established a link between the West’s obsession with these art pieces and the growth of a crime industry thriving on their theft. Ethiopia’s prized Coptic Christian crosses have been stolen multiple times. In the past half-century, hundreds of vigango statues have mysteriously disappeared from Kenya and Tanzania. 

This demand is often easier to meet in areas of conflict—the cities of Tunis, El Djem, and Monastir became hubs of illegal dealing following the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Weeks after war broke out in Mogadishu in 1991, the many exhibits housed in the Somali National Museum went missing, only to turn up in Kenya while being sold to white foreigners. And these foreigners are willing to pay good money for the loot. 

At the turn of the century, the black market antiquities trade brought in annual revenue of $4.5 billion globally. Africa was estimated to capture 10% of that value [i.e. $450 million]. However, a lot has changed since then. In October 2020, the global figure was estimated at $10 billion. Going by that percentage [which is presumably much higher than the initial 10%], Africa’s share should be at least $1 billion today.

To get these artefacts, the looters often go to extreme lengths. According to an excavator who conducts his operations in Mali, they sometimes dig up corpses to find precious stones from as far back as the Paleolithic era.  “We opened the tombs and found cadavers wearing the beads,” he said. “They had them on their necks, their waists, and their wrists”. 

Some of the people involved in this trade are well-to-do, respected art dealers who, through organized crime, are able to make bank from the business undetected. Some even use legitimate organizations as a front for their business. The Artefact Rescuers Association of Nigeria [ARAN], a group known for its business of trading ancient pieces according to the law, was exposed by a November 2020 study as a front for some of its members to sell looted art. That means the safety of African artefacts is not guaranteed even if repatriated back to the continent.

Also Read: Benin to Receive More Bronze Returns Next Year as the West Restitutes Loot

But an unexpected set of players in the trade are terrorists. The activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] also have a huge role to play in the black market. “ISIS has systematically looted archaeological sites, producing a stream of antiquities sold directly over social media,” according to archaeologist Ticia Verveer. “For years, the antiquity markets, collectors, and museums bought from illicit diggers.” 

The Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research [ATHAR] Project found recently that terrorists have taken to selling stolen artefacts from North African countries like Libya and Morocco via Facebook groups to fund their expensive crusades.

It does not appear this trade will stop anytime soon. Poverty allows for the looters to buy the cooperation of the local residents of the communities where they excavate the antiquities. The lack of prioritization by the government also means that there is little to no regulatory emphasis on curbing the menace. From all indications, it looks like the billion-dollar art crime industry in Africa will only keep on growing.

Related Articles

Back to top button

Subscribe to our newsletter!


Stay up to date with our latest news and articles.
We promise not to spam you!

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Arbiterz will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.