“Priceless Nigerian ancient art auctioned for 240 euros”

Nigeria is demanding the return of a priceless piece of Nigerian antique art that the Belgian authorities sold for 240 euros in 2007.  The sculpture worth many millions of euros was stolen from Nigeria’s National Museum and the Belgian authorities should never have resold the artefact.

An investigation by journalists at VRT and financial daily De Tijd confirms suspicions that Belgium is a hotspot for the sale of stolen ancient African art.

The theft at the National Museum in Jos occurred in January 1987. In addition to the Ife Bronze, a life-size bronze head mask, eight other valuable items disappeared.

The Nigerians alerted Interpol and the UNESCO. For many years there is no trace of the thieves or the bronze that eventually resurfaces in Belgium. It’s thought it’s seized by the Belgian authorities, but why and how is unclear.

Babatunde Adebiyi of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments says it’s particularly unfortunate that the matter was never properly investigated: “We may have been able to close in on the thieves”.

For years the artefact collected dust in the depot of the courts of justice in Brussels only to be auctioned off as part of a lot of African art in 2007.  Without a clue Belgium’s finance department sells the priceless Nigerian mask for 200 euros plus 40 euros in tax.

Julien Volper of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren says the bronze is art of the greatest importance: “There are few similar items to be found outside Nigeria.  Only the British Museum in London possesses a similar exhibit.  New York’s Metropolitan Museum owned one but that was returned to Nigeria in 2021”.

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