BRITAIN has pledged to assist Nigeria in retrieving the famous antiquity the Ife bronze head an antiquity that was stolen from the Jos National Museum in 1987 and later found with a Belgian private collector in London.
Nigeria, like many other African countries has been a victim of artefact theft with many European collectors looting their prized cultural assets. This week, Nigerian information minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed has been in London seeking diplomatic ways to resolve the issue of the stolen cultural objects.
Yesterday, he met with Helen Whately, the UK minister for arts, heritage and tourism, who promised to assist Nigeria in recovering the famous bronze piece. According to Alhaji Mohammed, during the meeting, they resolved to explore an amicable resolution to the matter to avoid any possible collateral damage between Nigeria, the United Kingdom and Belgium.
Alhaji Mohammed said: “The UK authorities are ready to assist us but they want further documentation as to the report made to Unesco and they also want a closer study of the report we made over the matter. The three countries are before a mediation panel, the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to the Countries of Origin or Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation.
“However, we think it is a matter that should be resolved working within the provision of the Unesco Convention. It was, therefore, a cordial meeting and we are very hopeful that the UK will cooperate with.”
He explained that the matter dated back to 1987, specifically, on January 14, when the National Museum in Jos was bugled and several valuable object of arts and artefacts were stolen. Immediately this happened, the National Council for Museums and Monuments, alerted Unesco, Interpol, the International Foundation for Arts Research (Ifar) and other related international bodies.
Alhaji Mohammed added: “Following the report, the object was, in accordance with the 1970 Unesco Convention, promptly put on the red list, which means it cannot be traded, exchanged or bought. The antiquity surfaced almost 30 years later in the UK when a Belgian vendor came to ask for it to be evaluated
“When this item surfaced in the UK, the auction house notified the UK Metropolitan Police who in turn notified Unesco and our permanent representative in the commission. Since then we have been pursuing the return of this artefact to Nigeria.”
However, he said that Nigeria did not receive the cooperation of the Belgium government in retrieving the artefact as the Belgian authorities claimed that they were not a party to the Unesco Convention at the time the item was bought by their citizen. Alhaji Mohammed added that the Belgian collector was also hiding under the provision of being a buyer in good faith and therefore asking for compensation.
“As a matter of fact, he is asking for €5m for an object that he said he purchased for €240 but our position is that he is not a buyer in good faith and he is not just an ordinary buyer but a collector with a very impressive collection, bigger than that of most museums. We believed that he ought to have made necessary enquiries from Unesco, Ifar and even from the source country before buying the object,” Alhaji Mohammed added.
He said the Nigerian government was impressed with the cooperation received so far from the UK Metropolitan Police since the matter started. Alhaji Mohammed added that based on the precedence of stolen artefacts in Yemen and Tanzania which were returned to both countries, Nigeria is encouraged and has a good case.